SARS Contained in Toronto, Labs Still in Caution Mode

Labs anticipate permanent changes in response to lessons learned from SARS outbreak

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IN RECENT DAYS, public health officials in the Canadian province of Ontario have declared the SARS outbreak to be contained.

As described in the last issue of THE DARK REPORT, the outbreak of SARS in Ontario had a significant operational impact on clinical laboratories in the province. (See TDR, April 14, 2003.) Both hospital labs and commercial labs were forced to change operations in several ways.

Labs Maintain Vigilence

“Though the SARS outbreak seems to have peaked, our lab has not relaxed any of the procedures we implemented in response to SARS,” stated Pat Everitt, Director, Government Relations and External Communications at MDS Diagnostic Services. “In fact, the lessons learned from the SARS outbreak will lead to permanent changes.

“For one thing, healthcare officials now use the term ‘new normal’ to describe operational procedures which will become the norm as a way to protect healthcare workers when treating patients suspected of having SARS,” she added. “For labs, the SARS outbreak reinforced the need for continued strict adherence to the lab procedures we’ve known about for years: proper use of universal precautions, good lab practice and safe transportation techniques. The sudden appearance of a new infectious disease reminds us of their importance.”

“It’s still early to assess the lessons and changes to laboratory practices which are a result of the SARS experience,” stated Ene Underwood. “The number one issue for our staff has been concerns about personal safety. This outbreak powerfully focused our lab organization to ensure that staff understands and has the tools they need to follow standard precautions for handling bodily substances, any of which could potentially contain infectious agents.”

Underwood is President and CEO of Toronto Medical Laboratories, the 50/50 joint venture between University Health Network (which owns three hospitals) and MDS Inc. “Even as the SARS outbreak eases in Toronto, there are still patient and staff entrances into the hospitals. Also, visits by vendors to our labs must be arranged in advance,” she said.

Source Of Specimens

Underwood’s laboratory is collaborating in two separate projects to develop diagnostic tests for SARS. “The declining number of SARS patients reduces the number of control specimens we can collect for these projects,” she explained. “It highlights one of the challenges facing researchers developing such tests.”

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