By ELLEN KNICKMEYER in Hofuf, Saudi Arabia, and BETSY MCKAY in AtlantaSaudi Arabia's announcements in the past five days of seven new deaths from a SARS-like virus have heightened fears that the Mideast outbreak is entering a more-aggressive phase.
On Monday, security guards, their faces covered by green medical masks, stood watch outside the intensive-care unit at a small hospital in Hofuf, in the country's Eastern province, that is treating some of the victims in the most lethal surge yet of the year-old outbreak of a novel coronavirus.
The kingdom's Ministry of Health disclosed the latest two deaths, of a 62-year-old woman and 71-year-old man, late Sunday night, saying in a brief statement that all of the current new cases of the virus appear to be clustered at a single hospital in Hofuf, one of the main cities of Eastern province, the heart of the Saudi oil industry.
The terse announcement by Saudi health officials triggered renewed international complaints that the kingdom has been slow in reporting details of the outbreak, sought by international organizations and countries trying to assess and prevent the spread of the virus.
The Ministry of Health announcement also is feeding fears and rumors among Saudis living in the midst of the outbreak.
"People are sending messages, SMSs, saying, 'stay home.' That all the hospitals have the virus. All," said one man, a cousin to one of the men who died and to two other men who have been sickened in the current outbreak and are still being treated.
The man confirmed an account from a hospital official in Hofuf that his three relatives had gone to three different hospitals in Eastern Province.
"The Ministry of Health just wants to close the books" by saying the latest outbreak is limited to one hospital, the man said, speaking on a Hofuf street lined with medical centers and pharmacies.