The net result of the government response in South Korea, where the outbreak has suddenly become the largest outside the Middle East, was not only to frighten people but also to discourage them from visiting any hospitals.
SEOUL, South Korea — Fears of the deadly virus that causes Middle East respiratory syndrome enveloped South Korea on Wednesday as the authorities nearly doubled the number of quarantined people they say may have been exposed, temporarily closed 230 schools and refused to identify the five hospitals where infections had been confirmed.
The net result of the government response in South Korea, where the outbreak has suddenly become the largest outside the Middle East, was not only to frighten people but also to discourage them from visiting any hospitals — perhaps increasing the possibility that undiscovered and untreated patients could further spread the disease.
Amplifying the anxiety, as well, was a deep skepticism of the government’s handling of emergencies, caused in part by the mismanagement of the ferry disaster last year that killed 304 people, mostly high-school students.
Thirty South Koreans have tested positive for the virus that causes the disease, which has killed hundreds of people in 25 countries, mostly in Saudi Arabia. The virus first emerged three years ago in the Middle East, where the vast majority of the more than 1,100 cases and more than 470 deaths reported have occurred. There is some evidence it can be transmitted from camels to humans.
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Two of the South Korean patients died Monday, and three others were in critical condition, health officials said Wednesday. The authorities were also awaiting test results for 99 people suspected of being infected. The number of people isolated at home or in state-run quarantine centers while officials monitored them for symptoms rose to 1,364 from 790 a day earlier.
So far in South Korea, all the reported cases of the syndrome, known as MERS, have been found among medical-staff members, patients or visitors at five hospitals. But the school closings helped to create the impression of wider exposure.
The World Health Organization said Wednesday that although a large outbreak outside the Middle East was a new development, it was not recommending any screening at South Korean ports of entry, “or travel or trade restrictions … ”
As the number of cases grew, alarm increased in South Korea, where many people remain traumatized by the sinking of the Sewol ferry in April 2014.
Stores have reported a surge in sales of hand-sanitizing products, which the government recommended as a precaution — even though it is spread through proximity to coughing and wheezing, not touching.
As officials have traced the path of the virus, they have found evidence of careless control in its health system. The first “index” patient, a 68-year-old employee of an agricultural-products company, returned home May 4 via Qatar after visiting Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
He developed a fever and cough, both symptoms of MERS, on May 11 and sought care at three clinics. But doctors did not suspect MERS because he did not tell them about his Middle East trip. A doctor and a nurse from those clinics later tested positive for the virus.
It was not until May 18 that a doctor at a larger hospital asked the government authorities to test the man. Two days later, he was declared the country’s first MERS case. Twenty-four other cases have since been traced to that hospital.