South Koreans wary of MERS virus snap up face masks

Jang Jee-in at Hana Pharmacy in central Seoul. Asked if she believes the masks can prevent MERS transmission, Jang says, “Not perfectly, but they can help.”

Jang Jee-in at Hana Pharmacy in central Seoul. Asked if she believes the masks can prevent MERS transmission, Jang says, “Not perfectly, but they can help.”

(Steven Borowiec / Los Angeles Times)

Jang Jee-in says that over the last week her pharmacy in central Seoul has sold more than 20 times as many N95 particulate-filtering masks as usual, and that the business has been sold out for two days.

“Even at the height of winter, when everyone is worried about catching a cold, we don’t sell nearly this many,” Jang said of the masks, which carry the approval of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a U.S. federal body.

The brisk sales reflect growing unease over Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in South Korea, where people in public places are donning the white masks in an effort to reduce their chances of catching the virus. On Friday, the government announced a fourth death from MERS, as well as five new infections, bringing the total to 41.

South Korea currently has the most cases of the virus outside the Middle East, where MERS first appeared in 2012 and where most of the 434 related deaths have been. The first case was reported in South Korea on May 20, involving a man who had traveled to Saudi Arabia.

Symptoms include fever, coughing and shortness of breath. Health experts have said that at its outset MERS can be difficult to identify because those initial symptoms are not specific. MERS has an incubation period of around 15 days, so the official tally of those infected in South Korea could rise in the coming days.


In South Korea, government response to crisis has been a hot-button issue since last year when the Sewol ferry sank, causing the deaths of 304 out of 476 people aboard. The government was a target of criticism at the time for what bereaved families called a late and ineffective rescue operation.

On Friday, data from public opinion polling firm Gallup Korea showed President Park Geun-hye’s approval rating at 34%, a 6-percentage-point drop from the previous week.

Officials have lobbed accusations of mishandling the outbreak back and forth over the last 24 hours, with Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon criticizing the central government for not publicly releasing the names of hospitals where patients contracted MERS.

Citing privacy concerns, the government initially opted not to disclose the names of the hospitals where the deaths occurred. Under pressure, the Ministry of Health and Welfare eventually released the name of St. Mary’s Hospital in Pyeongtaek, a city south of Seoul, where most cases were diagnosed.

Park Won-soon also berated the government for not quarantining a doctor who had contracted MERS. The man reportedly defied a government order to stay at home, attended a public event and came into contact with more than 1,500 people, Park said.

In a Friday morning news briefing, Minister of Health and Welfare Hong Moon-pyo expressed regret for not quarantining the man and allowing the virus to spread. Hong said the government is doing everything it can to contain MERS, and that Park’s comments only stoked public worry over the disease and undermined the government’s efforts to control the outbreak.

Police told the Yonhap News Agency on Friday that they will hold suspected virus carriers at medical facilities if they defy government orders to stay at home.

There is no known cure for MERS and its methods of transmission are unknown. All the infected people in South Korea had contact with infected patients or medical staff.

Seoul’s normally bustling streets and subway were quieter than usual Friday. More than 900 schools nationwide, mostly in and around Seoul, have canceled classes this week. Many public events have been canceled, including youth sports tournaments.

Song Dae-sup, a professor at the Korea University College of Pharmacy, recommended basic hygiene as a way of slowing the spread of MERS. “I encourage everyone to just take steps to boost their immune systems, such as eating properly and getting enough sleep,” Song said.

When asked if she believes that the masks can prevent transmission, Jang, herself clad in a mask while working behind the counter at Hana Pharmacy, said, “Not perfectly, but they can help.”

She said the pharmacy won’t have a new shipment of the masks until Monday or Tuesday of next week. Still, every few minutes a prospective customer comes into her fourth-floor pharmacy asking if masks are available, only to be told they’re all sold out.

Borowiec is a special correspondent.