WASHINGTON – Maryland health officials have issued two alerts urging hospitals, acute care facilities and local health departments to remain cautious and report any possible cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.
State officials said they are being careful not to panic over the potentially deadly disease. While there have been 199 suspected cases of SARS in the United States, five of them in Virginia, none have been reported in Maryland.
“There is no panic,” said J.B. Hanson, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “But we are more vigilant about those people who have respiratory problems.”
But with respiratory problems common at this time of year, a case of SARS might not be that obvious, if it does show up in Maryland.
“I don’t know if it is easy as I would like it to be,” saaid Dr. Peter Petropoulos, an emergency medicine specialist at Carroll County General Hospital. “It might be difficult, there are a lot of people who come in with respiratory distress.”
Hanson noted that the incidence of normal respiratory diseases is usually highest from October to May, and high pollen counts and pollution levels at this time of year could also create SARS-like symptoms.
SARS, which was identified recently in Hong Kong, can be fatal. There is no cure for the disease, which has symptoms including temperatures over 100 degrees, difficulty breathing and a dry cough.
Public health experts believe that it is spread through contact with airborne cough droplets, and may be spread through touching contaminated objects. Anyone who has SARS-like symptoms within 10 days of a trip to mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore or Vietnam should seek treatment.
The Department of Health and Mental Hygiene issued alerts in March and April listing the symptoms of the disease, and health care workers to question anyone with symptoms about their recent travel history.
Petropoulos said that everyone in his emergency room has taken extra precautions and is questioning anyone with respiratory problems about their recent travel history.
Any suspicious patients would be immediately isolated. Hospital personnel would wear gloves and masks while treating those patients and would be monitored themselves, Petropoulos said.
Petropoulos said a large influx of SARS patients could present problems for hospitals, especially smaller hospitals, because of the need for private rooms and a means to control ventilation. President Bush has placed the disease in the category of communicable diseases for which patients must be quarantined.
Earlier this month, the state placed the disease on the mandatory reporting list with diseases like tuberculosis and certain sexually transmitted disease, but Hanson said there have not been any calls from overly anxious health care workers.
If Maryland doctors or health officials suspect a case of SARS they are supposed to collect samples of sputum — saliva and mucus — and send them to the state’s laboratories for examination. If state technicians receive any suspicious results they will forward the samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hanson said.