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O.C. Hospitals, Clinics on Guard Against SARS

Cal State Fullerton's health center has screened every student coming in since April 15. The county has reported three possible cases.

May 31, 2003|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

The sign at UC Irvine Westminster Medical Center announces: "Stop and read. Fever, cough and recent travel. Please put on a mask prior to coming in." Beside it is a box of surgical masks.

Since the SARS outbreak has swept through Asia and elsewhere in recent months, such notices have popped up at hospitals, clinics and doctors' offices around the state.

No one in the United States is known to have died of severe acute respiratory syndrome, and nearly everyone diagnosed with it in this country is believed to have been exposed in Asia. But doctors have been taking no chances with the risk of the pneumonia-like ailment spreading to other patients and health workers.

The Westminster clinic, where most patients are of Vietnamese descent and often travel to Southeast Asia, went through 50 to 100 masks a day at the height of the SARS scare this spring, medical director Dr. Huan Le said. Now it's down to about 50 a week.

"We have had people come in and put on a mask anyway, whether they have symptoms or not," Le said.

Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian has put up more detailed signs in its Newport Beach emergency room and its health centers, although in its Costa Mesa clinic on a recent day, no one was using a mask.

"We just want to make sure patients are protected, that those infected don't infect others," Hoag spokeswoman Jackie Bambery said.

Some medical facilities have gone further. At Cal State Fullerton's health center, every student who has come in since April 15 has been briefly screened for SARS -- about 200 a day -- even if they have something as unrelated to the disease as a sprained ankle, campus spokeswoman Paula Selleck said.

None was found to have the disease.

Orange County has reported three suspected SARS cases but has not yet received confirmation in the form of test results from the California Department of Health Services. All three patients have recovered.

There have been 71 suspected or probable cases of SARS reported in California and 364 in the nation. The disease is believed to have killed 754 people worldwide, 90% of them in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, according to the World Health Organization.

SARS is caused by a coronavirus, a family of viruses that causes 30% of colds. SARS' symptoms, which are similar to the flu, are fatigue, a temperature of more than 100.5 degrees, coughing and difficulty breathing.

In fact, some people thought to have SARS turned out to have a flu virus. One possible reason that suspected U.S. cases have been so mild is that they are not SARS at all, said Dr. Duc Vugiav, chief of the Infectious Disease Branch of the state Department of Health Services.

But Vugiav said his agency recommends that health-care centers tell people who have SARS symptoms to put on a mask just in case. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on its Web site, advises people who think they might have SARS to wear a surgical mask when in close contact with others.

Cases in Toronto, Hong Kong and Taiwan are thought to have been caused by infected travelers spreading the disease to others.

At the Westminster clinic, some patients calling to make appointments for any reason have expressed fear that they would be exposed to the disease.

"Some of our staff feel some didn't make appointments because they were afraid the sick patients would be coming in here," said Cynthia Winner, director of UCI's clinics.

Indeed, the signs could scare some people, said Le of the Westminster clinic. "But it's better than to see someone [without a mask] walking inside the lobby and coughing."

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