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Toronto on Verge of SARS Emergency - 2003-04-23


Toronto is now in its second month of coping with the worst SARS crisis outside of Asia. Some officials are suggesting the city could be on the verge of a health "emergency" following the death of one more patient Tuesday. As Canada's largest city struggles to contain an outbreak of the potentially deadly SARS virus, government officials are trying to calm fears Toronto is facing an epidemic.

Since mid-March when a woman infected with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS)in Hong Kong brought the disease to a Toronto hospital, 15 people have died, about seven-thousand people have been quarantined, and more than three-hundred others are listed as suspect or probable cases.

While health officials have reacted by restricting hospital access and double-layered protective clothing for health care workers, Toronto has become something of SARS pariah.

Earlier this month, the American Association for Cancer Research canceled its conference in Toronto, a move that cut 12,000 visitors and 14 million U.S. dollars from the city's tourism industry. Others, like U.S.-based Crystal Cruises, have stopped accepting passengers from SARS hotspots including Toronto.

Ms. Mimi Weisband, a spokeswoman for the cruise line said it was a simple matter of business. "It is our concern that we do everything in our power to ensure that we're not putting our guests and our crew at risk."

To contain the outbreak, Canada's federal government and the province of Ontario, have promised to help the city. Money will be coming in to fund a SARS diagnostic test and bring in additional health care staff.

But no level of government has offered to help with the economic impact. When a senior federal official suggested the government might declare a "national emergency" and pick up the bill, Canadian Health Minister Anne McLellan quickly shot that down. "There is no necessity to talk of a national emergency at this point," she said.

However Ms. McLellan did promise all available help for the city's beleaguered health care system.