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    Pinellas hospital isolates suspected SARS case

    While tests are done, a hospital isolates the patient, who became ill after a trip to China.

    By CANDACE RONDEAUX and CURTIS KRUEGER
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 16, 2003


    TARPON SPRINGS -- State and county health officials are investigating a potential case of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Pinellas County.

    Pinellas County Health Department officials said a person showing symptoms of SARS was taken by ambulance Tuesday to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs.

    County health officials have received information about six potential SARS cases in Pinellas during the past two weeks, said Diana Jordan, a registered nurse who oversees communicable disease surveillance for the county Health Department in St. Petersburg.

    Doctors ruled out SARS in five of those cases.

    "We are currently investigating the case," Jordan said. "They have to do testing to eliminate other things like community-acquired pneumonia. Or it could be viral pneumonia."

    The patient was brought to the hospital after doctors outside the hospital detected what they thought might be symptoms of SARS, said hospital administrators. Officials said they could not release the person's age or gender.

    County emergency management and medical directors were contacted late Tuesday about the patient, said Gay Lancaster, first assistant county administrator.

    The patient recently returned from China, Lancaster said. After seeing a doctor in private practice, the patient was referred to Helen Ellis.

    Emergency medical personnel were notified of the potential SARS case when they received a 911 call from dispatchers and were told to take extra precautions, said Peter Moberg, a spokesman for University Community Health, the hospital's parent organization. The EMS workers in the ambulance donned masks, protective robes and took other standard precautions before transporting the patient to Helen Ellis Memorial, Moberg said.

    Jordan said she could not give details about the patient's condition, but said health officials expect the patient to recover.

    There is no specific test yet for SARS, but state health officials say they are investigating any case in which a patient shows symptoms and has traveled to, or had contact with someone who has traveled to, areas where SARS is prevalent.

    The list of areas with SARS outbreaks includes China, Hong Kong, Hanoi and Singapore. Symptoms of the illness include a fever over 100.4, coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

    "We're looking at numerous potential cases, and there is a potential case we're looking at in Pinellas County," said state health department spokesman Bill Parizek. "That's really the key to any potential case, is to get it looked at very quickly and to limit their exposure to other people."

    Because SARS is a new phenomenon, health officials are talking in terms of "suspect cases," rather than confirmed cases, Parizek said.

    Doctors at Helen Ellis hospital were performing tests Tuesday to determine whether the patient's symptoms are the result of another illness with similar symptoms, such as the flu or pneumonia.

    It was not clear whether the tests would require an overnight stay at the hospital, but the patient was being treated in an isolation room specially designed for patients with contagious illnesses, hospital officials said.

    As of late Tuesday, the Department of Health listed 12 people in Florida as suspect SARS cases. They ranged from a 4-year-old boy in Miami-Dade to an 82-year-old woman in Lee County. Two of the 12 have been hospitalized. None of the cases is considered life-threatening.

    The Pinellas County patient was not included among the list of 12, but state officials plan to update the list today. Whenever a suspect case is confirmed, the state's health department passes on the information to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

    SARS has killed at least 154 people worldwide, mostly health-care workers, and stricken more than 3,235 people in two dozen countries since its outbreak in November, according to the World Health Organization. There have been 193 cases in the United States with no deaths.

    President Bush has signed an order giving U.S. health officials the right to quarantine those infected with SARS.

    County and hospital officials said Tuesday it was unclear whether the patient at Helen Ellis had family members or acquaintances who might have been exposed. But health officials are asking anyone who thinks they might have been exposed to SARS to take extra hygiene precautions and watch for symptoms.

    "If they have a cough and they don't feel good and they've been exposed, then they do need to stay home," Jordan said.

    Despite Tuesday's news of the potential SARS case at Helen Ellis, it was business as usual for hospital staffers. "We do treat patients with contagious diseases on a regular basis so we treat cases like this the same way," Moberg said.

    -- Times staff writers Lisa Greene, Megan Scott and Ed Quioco contributed to this report.

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