In a bold move in response to the growing spread of a deadly pneumonialike epidemic, President Bush signed an executive order allowing the quarantine of patients with severe acute respiratory syndrome and other contagious diseases.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 countries have reported 2,353 suspected SARS cases, claiming 84 lives. The CDC reported that 115 Americans have contracted SARS, with California (30) and New York (17) leading in the number of cases. No SARS deaths have yet been re-ported in the U.S.
While SARS has sown panic in some countries-China and Hong Kong alone account for nearly 2,000 cases and 66 deaths-it has not yet dramatically affected America's hospitals, federal health and hospital officials said.
That's partly because bioterrorism training and mandates adopted since Sept. 11, 2001, have prepared hospitals and public health leaders, who have contained the spread more effectively in the U.S. The nation's hospitals have been on high alert since the attacks of 18 months ago and the anthrax and smallpox scares that followed. Daniel Sexton, a professor of medicine and head of the infection control unit at 769-bed Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., said the bioterrorism training has affected the way his hospital reacted to a suspected SARS patient who appeared there last month.
Sexton said the hospital teams in the emergency room and staffs in urgent care and primary care have trained for outbreaks of other communicable diseases. He said communication plans that included early alerts and immediate notifications helped to prepare the hospital for that patient, who later turned out not to have the disease.
"We know we can deal with the sporadic case because we're prepared for that and we've developed a template from our anthrax and smallpox training," Sexton said. "The question is how does anyone deal with a full-blown epidemic? That model hasn't been tested yet."
William Pierce, a spokesman for HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, said the mechanisms public health teams use to identify, contain and treat SARS are similar or identical to those implemented after last year's outbreak of the West Nile virus and the earlier anthrax alert. "One of the only silver linings of the 9-11 tragedy has been in the improved funding and attention given to our public health system," Pierce said. "There has been almost instantaneous, unprecedented communication on this (SARS epi-demic), and so far it's working well."