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Schools reopen as South Korea seeks normality in Mers outbreak

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A health worker checks the body heat of children wearing face masks at an elementary school in Pyeongtaek, 65 km south of Seoul, on June 15, 2015 as the school is reopened from a temporary closure in response to public fears over Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

[SUWON] Thousands of South Korean schools that were shut by worries over Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (Mers) reopened on Monday as the country sought to return to normal, nearly four weeks into an outbreak that showed signs of slowing.

Five new cases were reported by the Health Ministry on Monday, taking the total to 150, the largest outbreak outside of Saudi Arabia. The ministry also said another patient infected with the Mers virus had become the 16th fatality.

All the cases have been traced to healthcare facilities. Four hospitals have been shut down completely or partially closed in an effort to stop the spread of what the World Health Organization (WHO) has said was a "large and complex" outbreak.

At least 440 schools remained closed on Monday, compared with the 2,900 that were shut on Friday.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye, whose approval rating has been battered over the government's response to Mers, urged the country on Monday to return to normal. "I ask the business community, too, to continue to go on with investment, production and management activities as normal and particularly help with ensuring that consumers don't hold back from spending money," she told a meeting of senior aides.

Ms Park, who last week postponed a scheduled visit to the United States, saw her public support rating dip below 35 percent last week, according to a Realmeter poll.

Her government has been criticised for refusing in the early days of the outbreak to release the name of the hospital where infected and suspected patients had stayed, fuelling public fear and confusion.

On Saturday, the WHO cited shortcomings in South Korea's early response to Mers and urged better communication by the government to improve confidence and trust in its effort to fight the outbreak, domestically and internationally.

The Health Ministry said it was moving to quarantine more than 5,500 people who may have been exposed to the Mers virus at a prominent Seoul hospital, which has suspended most services after becoming a new epicentre of the outbreak. The number will take the total in quarantine to about 10,000.

Samsung Medical Center said on Sunday it was suspending all non-emergency surgery and would take no new patients after more than 70 cases were traced to it, including an infected worker who was found to have been in contact with more than 200 people.

At Myoungin Elementary School in the city of Suwon, south of Seoul, teachers greeted students at the gate for the first time in 10 days, taking their temperatures to send home anyone who had a fever.

The WHO last week recommended schools be reopened, saying schools have not been linked to transmission of the Mers virus in South Korea or elsewhere. "The child's mother and I both work, so I think it's better for kids to be in school where there can be proper measures, rather than keeping them home," said Bin Ko-ok, who brought her first-grader grandchild to school.

The school was one of the first to shut as the fear of MERS spread two weeks ago. Its principal, Kim Hak-yu, said he had received no calls from parents opposed to it reopening.

South Korea said more than 108,000 tourists had called off visiting the country by Saturday since the start of the outbreak, 75 percent of them from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The trend is expected to continue through the summer, the culture ministry said.

REUTERS