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SARS worries know no bounds

Repercussions have hit the Northwest harder than the virus itself

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, the mysterious illness that has killed almost 150 people worldwide and infected nearly 3,000 people since November, is affecting the everyday lives of some Portland area residents. Hit especially hard are health-care workers, travelers to and from Asia, and people whose businesses have offices or factories in the Far East.

So far, none of the four potential cases in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., has been confirmed as SARS, and health officials say the chances of a SARS outbreak in Oregon and Southwest Washington are slim.

People should be cautious but not worried, said Paul Cieslak, communicable disease program manager for the Oregon Department of Human Services.

'What I want the public to know is that most suspected cases are not likely to be true SARS,' he said. 'The other thing I'd like people to have is a healthy sense of perspective. Flu kills 36,000 people a year worldwide. SARS has killed (nearly 150) since last November. People are more likely to die of something else.'

Though there has been no confirmed case of SARS occurring locally, area hospitals are taking precautions to safeguard against the disease.

Local medical officials describe measures that include preparing specially ventilated hospital rooms to isolate suspected patients; instructing health-care workers to wear masks, gowns, gloves and eye protection when caring for a suspected SARS patient; and making sure health-care workers recognize SARS symptoms as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Kaiser has posted signs describing SARS symptoms in all of its medical offices, said Dana Barron, infection control manager for Kaiser Permanente Northwest in Portland.

The symptoms are fairly broad, said Cieslak, the state health expert.

People should call the doctor if they have a high fever (a temperature of at least 100.4 degrees), a cough and/or breathing difficulties and have either traveled to a SARS-affected country or had close contact with someone who has traveled to mainland China and Hong Kong. Those countries, as well as Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, have been hardest hit by the disease. SARS also has been reported in the United States, in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, and in Europe.

Health officials still don't know what causes SARS, but it may be a new form of the coronavirus, which usually causes mild respiratory illness in people, according to the CDC Web site at www.cdc.gov.

In the United States, no one has died from SARS, though the disease has infected 166 people, according to the CDC's latest numbers.

Of Oregon's three suspected SARS patients, two did not have the disease and one still is being monitored, state health officials said.

The first patient, a 57-year-old Portland area woman who recently had traveled to China, complained of a high fever and a cough. She was admitted to Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas and spent about four days in isolation, where she responded quickly to antibiotics, Barron said.

The woman eventually was diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia.

After several days of monitoring, the second Portland area patient was found to have an upper respiratory infection.

The third potential case is an adopted child from China who developed a fever and cough shortly after arriving in Portland, Cieslak said. She is being kept in isolation at home, and state officials are waiting for test results from tissue samples sent to the CDC.

Chances are the child caught a cold from a sibling, Cieslak said.

In Vancouver, a Hewlett-Packard employee who recently returned from China was diagnosed with symptoms of the disease last Monday.

She was not hospitalized, is recovering at home and is 'feeling better all the time,' said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health.

Moyer said health officials are interviewing the woman's co-workers, but there are no new suspected SARS cases in Clark County.

As of Monday morning, Washington state health officials reported 21 suspected SARS cases but none confirmed.

'We've gotten a lot of phone calls,' said Kaiser's Barron, who postponed a planned vacation last week to coordinate the Sunnyside patient's care and Kaiser's response.

'I'm amazed at how many of our members have traveled to (SARS-affected) countries lately. Most of the people who have called have been more worried than have symptoms Ñ runny nose, a cold.'

Travel bookings decline

Because airline travel is a major factor in the worldwide spread of the disease, SARS is having a measurable effect on bookings, said Bill Harmon, vice president of retail travel for Azumano Travel Service, Oregon's biggest travel agency.

New passenger bookings to SARS-affected regions of Asia are down by as much as 40 percent, he said.

'We're seeing no dip in travel to Japan,' which has no reported SARS cases, although four probable cases have been identified, Harmon said.

But the drop is apparent in bookings to SARS-affected countries in the Far East.

Some travelers have canceled trips planned for those destinations, and at least a half-dozen of Azumano's corporate customers have prohibited employees from traveling to Asia, Harmon said.

Intel Oregon spokesman Bill MacKenzie said Intel, which has 15,000 employees in Asia, is allowing only 'mission-critical travel' to areas affected by SARS.

The disease 'does not appear to be having any effect on our business operations per se,' he said. 'It is having an impact on the movement of people.'

Mostly, the global high-tech company is encouraging employees to use e-mail and other forms of communication to reduce the need to travel, he said.

Portland-based IDC Inc., which has offices in Singapore and three cities in China, has not stopped employees from traveling but is allowing 'anyone who is uncomfortable about traveling or remaining (in a SARS-affected area) to have the option of relocating,' said spokesman Ted Johnson.

The company, which designs research labs, has issued memos to employees in SARS-vulnerable areas that list precautions for guarding against the illness.

At Portland State University, one student canceled a trip home to Hong Kong on the advice of his father, said Christina Luther, assistant director of International Education Services.

And at the urging of a Chinese student, Luther is issuing information about SARS to international students.

PSU has about 1,200 students from other countries, at least a third from Asia.

Port traffic scrutinized

The CDC has issued guidelines for airlines, cargo ships and cruise ships to control the disease's spread.

In Portland, two carriers, Air China Cargo and Korean Air, bring cargo directly from Asia to Portland International Airport, said Port of Portland spokesman Steve Johnson.

When the planes arrive, flight crews do not disembark and go through customs, he said. Instead, 'they normally stay on or near the aircraft. They might walk around it for inspection before they take off again.'

For now, ground handlers who unload cargo do not wear protective masks. 'PDX is not identified as a high-risk airport, because we don't have nonstop passenger service to Asia,' Johnson said.

A few of the dozen other cargo carriers at the airport provide service to and from the Far East, but none have direct flights.

The Portland harbor, however, is a regular port of call for many ships from Asia.

U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Tanya Giles, chief of Port State Control for the Portland region, recently outlined SARS precautions and protocol in an e-mail to ships' agents, ships' masters, shipping line personnel and others concerned with waterfront security.

She said masters of all U.S.-bound vessels are required to report any illnesses to the U.S. Public Health Service. Coast Guard teams that board vessels ask at the gangway if any crew members on board are or have been ill.

'The biggest safety factor is that it takes a ship 12 days to get across (from Asia to Portland),' Giles said. 'By then it is past the incubation time, so people are going to be sick if they have (SARS). That's the main measure, asking if people are sick on board.'

Oregon state Economist Tom Potiowski said SARS' impact on Oregon has been confined because the disease mostly affects passenger travel to and from Asia.

If the concern spreads to fears about goods handled in SARS-affected regions, shipping would be affected and 'that would be an extremely serious problem,' he said.

Oregon's top trading partners include China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, all of which are affected by SARS.