SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The death toll in South Korea's MERS outbreak increased Tuesday even as schools reopened and people recovered from the virus.
Nineteen people have died in the largest outbreak of the disease outside the Middle East, with three more dying since late Monday, the Health Ministry said. More than 150 have been infected with Middle East respiratory syndrome and nearly 5,600 have been quarantined.
The government says the outbreak is slowing, but fear and misinformation are widespread. The virus is believed to be spread in respiratory droplets, such as by coughing, and infections have been occurring in close-contact situations, such as caring for a sick person.
Health workers are spraying disinfectant at karaoke rooms, on public transportation and in other businesses, and teachers are sprinkling salt on school grounds in a misplaced attempt to protect themselves as many schools reopen this week.
About 365 schools and kindergartens were closed as of Tuesday afternoon, compared to as many as 2,900 last week.
The discovery of new cases and a growing number of quarantine orders have critics questioning the control measures.
Officials have struggled to trace and identify people who had contact with MERS patients at a major hospital in southern Seoul. More than 70 people, including patients, medical staff and visitors, have been infected from the facility, which has temporarily stopped accepting new patients and postponed non-serious surgeries as part of its quarantine efforts.
MERS belongs to the family of coronaviruses that includes the common cold and SARS, and can cause fever, breathing problems, pneumonia and kidney failure. Most of the fatalities in South Korea have been people with existing medical conditions, such as respiratory problems or cancer.
The World Health Organization has downplayed the possibility of a pandemic, saying the virus is not spreading in the wider community and has not mutated to spread easily among humans.
The South Korean outbreak originated from a 68-year-old man who had traveled to the Middle East, where the illness has been centered, before being diagnosed as the country's first MERS patient last month.