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Texas specialist assists Toronto with SARS control

San Antonio (July 8, 2003) — Hospital infection control specialist Jan E. Patterson, M.D., of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSC) spent two weeks in Toronto lending her expertise to the war against SARS. She returned home July 1.

Dr. Patterson, professor of medicine and pathology at the UTHSC and director of hospital epidemiology at San Antonio's University Hospital and the South Texas Veterans Health Care System, worked in the infection control program of a SARS-affected hospital in the Canadian city, which has 3 million residents but only four physicians who are infection control specialists. "My role was to help in building and restructuring the hospital's infection control program," Dr. Patterson said. "I am impressed at the dedication and hard work of the hospital staff, despite all the emotional distress they have gone through. The staff has been on 'work quarantine' — meaning they can travel between work and home but nowhere else."

One infection control nurse was unable to visit her dying father in another hospital, Dr. Patterson said. The quarantine limited her to saying goodbye to him on a mobile phone.

Dr. Patterson is among a half-dozen hospital epidemiologists/infection control experts who were flown to Toronto in response to a call from the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Toronto has been removed from the World Health Organization travel advisory list, but the city and other areas "are still being very cautious with isolating those with respiratory disease, because of the epidemic relapsing previously when they thought it was over," she said.

Dr. Patterson said it has "seemed very odd to be wearing a mask all the time while working at the hospital, even in committee meetings. It's kind of surreal at first. Then you get used to all the precautions and it becomes routine. Besides the mask, the hospital screened all staff and visitors everyday with a questionnaire about symptoms and exposure and also by taking their temperature every time they entered the hospital."

Could Toronto's crisis happen in the United States? "Yes, it is certainly possible," Dr. Patterson said. "In fact, with all the preparation we have done for bioterrorism, we are really more likely to see SARS in the next winter respiratory season now that it has been introduced in humans. This is similar to the phenomenon with influenza. We need to be ready for the possibility of SARS, and this will require training of staff in the early identification of possible cases, use of protective equipment, and stocking an adequate supply of protective equipment."

Contact: Will Sansom or Lucie Portela