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2015-06-15 17:26
A medical staffer at Samsung Medical Center passes through a door of a temporary fence erected in front of the emergency room, which was closed due to a large outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome there, Monday. / Yonhap

By Jung Min-ho


When pride turns into complacency, it is often a recipe for disaster.

This appears to be the case with Samsung Medical Center (SMC), which is regarded as the nation’s finest hospital.

Its representative testified during a hearing at the National Assembly Thursday, “It is not Samsung Medical but the nation whose line of defense was penetrated.”

Now, we know that is not true. Its president also admitted this in a public apology.

Over the past four weeks of dealing with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), SMC is found to have frequently failed to stick to the basic rules of containing the infectious disease.

As of Monday, the hospital is blamed for 72 people becoming infected with the deadly virus after failing to quarantine suspected patients during the early, critical stages of the outbreak. The number is roughly a half of the country’s 150 patients.

The tragedy began because SMC failed to keep the nation’s 14th MERS patient under control. The patient was taken to the hospital on May 27 with symptoms of pneumonia, and was suspected of having contracted MERS from May 29.

However, many of those who had contact with the patient were not notified of his possible infection until June 4. Meanwhile, the virus allegedly spread through the patient and people who had contact with him, including 218 medical workers.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare said Monday that 4,075 suspected patients allegedly exposed to the virus at SMC were now quarantined in ministry-designated facilities or their homes. But it is unclear whether everyone who visited or contacted the patient were included on the list, given that people in Korea normally visit hospitals randomly without filling out official documents.

In fact worryingly, Korea’s 138th and 137th patients, a doctor and an ambulance worker at SMC respectively, were not included on the hospital’s initial list of “suspected patients” and worked there for more than a week until recently.

On Sunday, SMC partially shut down operations in an effort to stem the further spread of MERS. How many people were possibly affected in the meantime is still unknown. It could be more than hundreds, if not thousands, given that the hospital treats nearly 10,000 outpatients every day.

During a press conference that day, SMC director Song Jae-hoon announced the suspension of non-emergency surgery and the closure of its emergency ward until June 24. Also, the hospital will not accept outpatients and restrict access of relatives to patients.

“I bow my head deeply in apology for concerns we have caused to the people regarding Patient No. 137, an emergency ward transfer agent, and over the fact that the SMC has become the center of MERS infection,” Song said.

The apology came three days after an SMC representative refused to make one, saying the outbreak was mainly the government’s fault.

The ministry also belatedly sent 24 inspectors to the hospital to check whether the SMC had followed its instructions properly.

It remains to be seen whether the SMC and the ministry will finally be able to stop the virus.

But many have already lost trust in the hospital, which has all the best equipment but failed to use it at the right time. SMC will need a long time to repair its shattered reputation ― if it ever can.

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