President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) yesterday spoke out for the first time about his role in the sealing off of Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital late last month and revealed that the hospital covered up the initial stages of its SARS outbreak.
Chen made the remarks yesterday in a visit to Taipei's Veterans General Hospital to express his admiration for medical personnel who are tackling SARS on the front line.
Chen said he had received a "distress call" on April 22 informing him that some Hoping Hospital staff members might have come down with SARS and that the hospital is in a desperate situation.
"The phone call was from Huang Fang-yen (黃芳彥), vice president of Shin Kong Wu Ho-Su Memorial Hospital," Chen said. "At the time, I thought it was an SOS call, so I immediately directed staff from the Center for Disease Control [CDC] under the Department of Health [DOH] to look into the situation there."
Initially, Chen explained, the CDC said Hoping Hospital didn't report a SARS-infection problem.
"But I felt something might be wrong and told the CDC to continue its probe," Chen said. "The SARS outbreak then surfaced, and the facility was sealed off two days later."
According to Chinese-language newspapers, DOH Deputy Director-General Lee Lung-teng (李龍騰), CDC Deputy Director Hsu Kwo-hsiung (許國雄) and the disease control task force headed an investigation into the hospital between 9pm on April 22 and 2am the next day.
The task force then visited probable and suspected SARS cases from late on April 23 to early morning the next day.
On April 24, the DOH ordered Taipei City Government to establish a medical advisory team and map out a plan to control the flow of people into the hospital. Later that day, a joint meeting convened by the central government and Taipei City Government took the decision to seal off the hospital.
The abrupt shutdown drew protests, with a man inside the hospital even committing suicide.
"Seeing that the situation seemed to be spinning out of control, I called an emergency meeting in the evening of April 26," Chen said.
"Since the campaign against SARS is the medical equivalent of war, I came up with an action plan at the meeting, ordering all people in the hospital -- including staff members, patients and visitors -- to be evacuated within 36 hours," Chen said.
Hospital patients were later sent to several medical institutions in northern Taiwan -- including the Armed Forces Sungshan Hospital -- for treatment, while Hoping Hospital staff were sent to a nearby military training camp and a suburban reception center of the KMT's for quarantine.
"I am recounting this story mainly to let you know that the government is working to plug any holes in the nation's SARS-fighting network," Chen said.
He also reminded all hospital staff to adopt strict measures to protect themselves before coming into contact with patients.