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False alarms, but no SARS

NWT health care system feels prepared after 'dress rehearsals'

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services

Hay River (May 12/03) - SARS has not yet made its way to the NWT, but the health care system is ready just in case.

In fact, there have been several false alarms over SARS - severe acute respiratory syndrome - and preparations have worked well.

Dr. Andre Corriveau describes the false alarms as "dress rehearsals," which provide valuable information on the system's readiness.

SARS is a sometimes fatal atypical pneumonia of unknown cause which is believed to have arisen in China last year and has spread to many parts of the world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the death rate from SARS at 14 to 15 per cent -- and 50 per cent for those over 65 who contract the illness.

One false alarm was in Hay River several weeks ago, when a parent phoned the local hospital about a young person, just returned from Toronto. The youth had a high temperature and respiratory symptoms.

"The question of whether SARS might have been contracted was raised, and advice was given over the phone," says Dr. Peter Cardon, the chief of medical staff with the Hay River Community Health Board.

Such patients are advised to stay at home, while the situation is assessed. However, the Hay River parent brought the young person to H.H. Williams Memorial Hospital.

Cardon says the patient was received with very little fuss and the possible threat was properly recognized. The young person was directed to an entrance the hospital has designated for possible SARS cases and put into a designated room.

"The person didn't have SARS," Cardon says, although he notes, "That gave us a great opportunity to test our preparedness."

Everything worked well and that is "very encouraging," he adds. "It reinforced our plan was on track."

Corriveau is also very pleased with the way the Hay River medical and clinical staff reacted quickly and worked through the problem. "They really came through with flying colours."

Jet lag, not SARS

Corriveau says following the March break there were other people who arrived back in the NWT after travelling to or through Hong Kong, where there has been a severe outbreak of SARS.

Some of those travellers were ill after returning.

"We had to field some questions and provide appropriate information," Corriveau says, noting the travellers were just suffering from jet lag or headaches.

Many other people travelled to Toronto - the epicentre of the SARS outbreak in Canada - and returned with sore throats and colds, prompting about a dozen calls to various hospitals. All turned out to be false alarms.

"We never had any probable case of SARS or anything close," Corriveau stresses.

Another NWT resident had travelled on a plane on which a SARS case was suspected. All passengers on the plane were contacted by Health Canada. However, the NWT resident never became sick and the other passenger never developed SARS.

Corriveau says all hospitals and health boards in the NWT have prepared for the possibility of SARS.

With the information gained from the false alarms, he believes the NWT is as ready as it can be for the potential arrival of the disease.

"We need to remain vigilant, whether it's for SARS or some other emerging disease in the future," he says.

Corriveau adds it appears the spread of SARS has been halted in Canada, but the disease may spread in other countries. If that happens, Canada may face sporadic re-introductions.

In the absence of a vaccine or cure, the distribution of information has become one of the main weapons to fight SARS.

In Hay River, Laurette Hamilton, the manager of community health services, says the most up-to-date information has been distributed to medical workers and the public.

The health system in Hay River has received about 15 calls from the public with various questions about SARS.

Along with information, Kim Brooks, the manager of combined care in Hay River, notes frontline workers - such as nurses and housekeeping staff - have been equipped with gowns, masks and goggles to deal with suspected SARS patients.