Toronto Labs Stressed in Response To SARS Outbreak

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THIS ISSUE OF THE DARK REPORT BRINGS SOME OF THE FIRST DETAILS about how the SARS outbreak in the Canadian Province of Ontario is causing widespread, sustained disruption to hospitals, laboratories, and office-based physicians, particularly in the Toronto metropolitan area.

When the earliest SARS patients showed up in Ontario hospitals, international healthcare alerts had yet to be issued. Alarmingly large numbers of healthcare workers were exposed and became infected because they had been around SARS patients with relatively little protection. When public health authorities recognized the emerging pattern of infection, they acted swiftly to control the further spread of SARS and learn more about the disease.

I recommend that laboratory executives and pathologists pay careful attention to the still-unfolding story of SARS in Toronto and its eventual aftermath. SARS is a case study for how both bioterror and contagious diseases can emerge at unexpected moments—threatening the health and economic well-being of major cities overnight. In Ontario, SARS placed healthcare workers in hospitals and other settings at risk.

In March, entire hospitals were closed and their staffs put in quarantine for a minimum of ten days. Hospitals ceased elective surgeries and were allowed to treat only patients in “life-threatening” circumstances. A major international medical meeting of 12,000 attendees was cancelled because of concern about SARS exposure and transmission.

The clinical lab’s vulnerability to the unknown aspects of SARS was revealed in an unexpected way. A microbiologist who was director of one hospital’s infection control team traveled to another hospital to observe and treat a SARS patient. This microbiologist became infected with SARS and, upon returning to her own hospital, exposed all six members of the infection control team. She and three team members subsequently contracted SARS.

The emergence of a new disease such as SARS fulfills the many predictions of healthcare experts. To help lab directors and pathologists understand this phenomenon and develop appropriate management strategies for their own laboratories, THE DARK REPORT is devoting extensive coverage to the Toronto outbreak. The economic and emotional turmoil unfolding in that town is another timely warning that infectious disease outbreaks can hit any town at any time.


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