My Turn: Tourists and the worldwide threat of SARS

Posted: Tuesday, April 15, 2003

By now everyone has heard something about SARS or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. This disease has created worldwide travel alerts and has caused deaths mainly in China and Canada. More cases and related deaths are being reported every day. In the U.S., 116 cases have been reported from Seattle to Florida. SARS is an airborne virus thought to be related to the common cold, has no cure, and is considered a global contagious threat.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are updating information on SARS daily on their Web sites. According to an excerpt from the WHO update of April 11: "If the SARS virus maintains its present pathogenicity and transmissibility, SARS could become the first severe new disease of the 21st century with global epidemic potential." As such the CDC has issued multiple guidelines for the airline industry, airplane cleaning employees, TSA employees, Customs employees, but has nothing for the cruise line industry thus far. There is no mention of SARS on any cruise industry Web page.

In the next few months we will have a half a million tourists from all over the world visiting our community. The odds are strong with the current promulgation and spread of SARS that we will have SARS come to our community. If there is a local plan to mitigate or containerize the impact of this disease from travelers potentially carrying it to Juneau, it has not been widely communicated to our citizens.

I can appreciate and understand that any discussions regarding SARS and the fact that it can be carried by well-meaning travelers is not especially welcome news for the Juneau (or Alaska) tourism industry and I can appreciate that some members from our Alaska tourism industry might be reluctant to engage in hypothetical discussions. One only need look at the extraordinary travel alerts to Hong Kong and China to understand the devastating implications on their tourist industry. However, our small community with its high number of visitors from around the world has a greater risk of contracting SARS than most non-tourist small communities in the United States. We therefore should have a well-thought out plan of containment and response. We do not have several hospitals, the financial resources nor the depth of health care facilities like Seattle, Toronto, or Hong Kong to conduct quarantine operations.

The president of the United States has issued Executive Order 13295, which gives the authority to quarantine and isolate infected individuals. The president has taken extraordinary measures because there is an obvious risk to American citizens. What is the contingency plan if one, 10 or a boat/plane-load of potentially infected SARS carriers descend on our community? Do we quarantine them and where? Do we put them in Bartlett for observation? Or jokingly, do we put them on the ice field? I do not want to appear to be an alarmist, but I feel that I have raised legitimate community concerns. Other communities across America are responding to this threat because it is real and I think it is time we do the same. As the primary regional city in Southeast Alaska, I also feel that we collectively have a responsibility to take the lead and develop a plan that can be shared among our Southeast Alaska neighbors.

Therefore, I am requesting that our City Assembly members, our mayor and our public health officials immediately develop and have ready for implementation a SARS contingency plan prior to our 2003 tourist season and to make this plan public. I also suggest as a part of this process that we muster our local community physicians and health professionals to lead a task force to analyze and scale the risk of "biological" threats and produce contingency plans that take the necessary and cautionary steps to mitigate and lessen the exposure of these potential risks to the citizens of Juneau. Our tourist season starts next month and this process should be on a fast track. Our Juneau citizens, our tourism industry and our local economy deserve a plan.

Duff W. Mitchell has business and military interests in Juneau but contributed this commentary as a concerned citizen.

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