Local SARS Plan In Place If Needed

    GRAND RAPIDS — While hand washing is the best measure anyone can take to prevent an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, hand wringing didn’t even make the list.

    But tourism and convention officials in Ontario have done plenty of the latter lately due to enormous industry losses from a SARS outbreak. Toronto, one of two cities worldwide hit hardest by the disease, has dropped between $500 million to $1 billion in trade show and tourism revenue just over the last few months because of SARS.

    As a prescription, the city will get the bulk of a $21 million tourism package from the Canadian government targeted to draw visitors to the city and keep residents from going elsewhere. And a $1 million local effort, funded by five banks, also hopes to do the same.

    Thankfully, West Michigan tourism and convention officials haven’t had to do any hand wringing over SARS, particularly with all the money that has been pumped into making the area more attractive to tourists and convention-goers.

    However, the first two suspected cases of SARS in the state were reported in Kent County, one in February and another in March. A third was reported in Washtenaw County in April. Since then, the Michigan Department of Community Health has said that none of the three persons is hospitalized and all are recovering without any reported complications.

    “There is no evidence of a direct connection between any of the suspect cases as all three individuals had independently traveled to Asia,” said Kimberlydawn Wisdom, Community Health surgeon general.

    With only three suspected cases and no probable ones reported in Michigan, the state ranks near the bottom of a list of SARS cases in the nation. As of early June, California, New York and Washington had the most suspect and probable cases with 71, 41 and 29, respectively. The nationwide count from the Centers for Disease Control stood at 373 total cases then, with 67 of those listed as probable.

    So the state and West Michigan are relatively SARS-free. But, what if?

    “If we were to suddenly have an increase of cases here, we would handle it just as we would any other infectious disease outbreak,” said Cathy Raevsky, administrative health officer for the Kent County Health Department.

    That means Raevsky and her team of health professionals would try to find out where the SARS came from, identify the index case, determine where that person got infected, and interview all who may have been exposed to the carrier.

    “And get all those people in for observation and, in this case, probably for a quarantine,” she said. “Then we would interview them to find out who they may have exposed so that we would be ready if they started to get sick.”

    Knowing that a containment process is in place just in case the unspeakable happens here should help relax any fears that the Convention and Arena Authority, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the area’s hotel operators might have.

    After all, a lot of time, effort and money have been invested to lure tourists to the region and conventions to DeVos Place. And with the exhibit space opening in December, there could be some hands held, and a few may even be wrung, between now and then.

    But for Raevsky and her staff, containment is standard operating procedure when they are faced with any infectious disease, whether it would be smallpox, AIDS or SARS. They would calmly look for what type of agent is present in everyone who was tested, how much time passed from exposure to illness, how long a carrier could infect others, and how it was transmitted. And they likely wouldn’t be doing any of that by themselves.

    “If we had an outbreak here, my guess would be, because it would be the first outbreak in the United States, we would be descended upon by people from the Centers for Disease Control and probably from the state,” she said. “But that would be true for wherever you would see a cluster of the first U.S. cases of any disease.”           

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