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South Korean schools reopen, government maintains MERS has peaked, but death and fear continue

06/16/2015 02:23 EDT | Updated 06/15/2016 05:59 EDT
SEOUL, South Korea - The death toll continued to mount in South Korea's MERS outbreak on Tuesday even as schools reopen and people recover 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 there's still widespread fear and misinformation. Health workers are spraying disinfectant at karaoke rooms and 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 government's 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 starting Monday 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 suffering from pre-existing medical conditions, such as respiratory problems or cancer.

After a weeklong review of the situation, experts from the World Health Organization and South Korea on Saturday downplayed the possibility of the country's MERS outbreak turning into a pandemic. They said there was no evidence to suggest that the virus, currently confined around health facilities, was spreading in the community.

The South Korean outbreak originated from a 68-year-old man who had travelled to the Middle East before being diagnosed as the country's first MERS patient last month.

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