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An Update on MERS

If you've been paying attention to recent events in Korea, it's easy to pick up on the concerns regarding Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). When the news hit, teachers discussed it at our school board dinner in hushed voices. Korean news feeds updated every couple of hours with information on confirmed cases of the virus. Meanwhile, most foreigners had to rely on hearsay as the government dragged its feet to keep its non-Korean residents informed about the spread.

It also took the government a while to reveal a list of hospitals that housed known MERS patients. There was an economic reason for this; not only would those hospitals lose patients during the time of the outbreak, but in the future they could be cast under a shadow for their affiliation with the disease. Koreans never forget, and the government's lack of support made it easy to recall a similarly disappointing lack of action during last year's Sewol accident. Some schools took a couple days off from class. Other public and group events, such as Gangneung's Dano Festival or this semester's EPIK seminar, were canceled or postponed.

1031209_1_168The Dano Festival, from the Visit Korea official website.

When the news first broke, most of the hospitals in question were in Seoul or the surrounding Gyeonggi Province. This is unsurprising, given that about half the country's population lives there. Gangneung is the largest city on the coast of Gangwon Province, but it's geographically removed from the capital, and the disease was only likely to spread if a person carrying it came over without realizing that he or she was ill.

That's probably the source of worry for most people, which makes some sense given Korea's previous experience with SARS. It doesn't take much for fear to permeate conversations about an invisible, incurable illness that could be anywhere around you. Still, Korean hygiene habits such as the tendency not to cover one's mouth when one coughs probably aren't helping much. Most of the fatal cases have been elderly patients, and most people who catch the disease were also in close contact with a person who had MERS

Gangneung doesn't have as many crowded, enclosed public spaces as Seoul, so the chances of a respiratory disease spreading aren't so great. I've seen a few people in coffee shops and grocery stores wearing surgical masks, but most people seem to be going about life as usual, albeit with more bottles of hand sanitizer.

Then we started hearing about MERS patients in Wonju and Sokcho, both of which are in Gangwon Province. From Wonju, a couple patients were transferred to Gangneung, and it didn't take long for the name of the hospital to surface. The claim, for which I have found no reliable English-language source, is that they were moved to Gangneung because the quarantine facilities were better.

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Gangwon Province

Just a few days after the announcement that there were no new MERS cases in South Korea, word spread that the head nurse at a hospital in Gangneung had contracted MERS. A couple of our students' parents work in that same hospital. Soon there was talk that the parents could pass it to their children, who could pass it to the rest of the school.

By this point, most schools have implemented a monitoring system. Teachers at the gates or in homerooms have been taking everyone's temperatures when they arrive. (One of MERS's symptoms is a fever.) My school has a set of thermometers that don't need to touch skin to read temperature; they simply need to be held near the temple or neck to get an accurate reading.

The students (and teachers) are tired and stressed as they spend this week preparing for their final exams, and a health scare seems to be the last thing everyone needs, but so far people have been taking it well. Then again, I suppose they have to; stress invites illness. 

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