Possible SARS patient flown from Skagway, hospitalized at Bartlett

Posted: Sunday, June 08, 2003

A cruise ship passenger was admitted to Bartlett Regional Hospital on Thursday as a possible SARS case, but state medical officials said it is very unlikely she has the sometimes fatal respiratory illness.

The woman, whose identity was not revealed by state officials, was medevaced on Thursday afternoon from Skagway to Juneau, where she was admitted to the hospital. She had a fever and a cough, and X-rays showed she had pneumonia, which are among the symptoms associated with SARS, said Dr. Beth Funk, the state medical epidemiologist.

But there are many reasons people have those symptoms, she said. And the only reason the woman met the federal Centers for Disease Control's definition of a SARS case was that she also had been in Toronto - passing through the airport - before coming to Alaska.

Toronto has had recent documented SARS cases, but none were transmitted at the airport, Funk said.

"Medically, we think it is highly unlikely this woman has SARS," Funk said. "But from the public health standpoint and as a state supporting the efforts of the CDC ... we have to apply this definition."

SARS stands for severe acute respiratory syndrome. Of the 8,404 "probable SARS cases" - a formal term - reported worldwide as of Friday, 779 people have died, including 31 Canadians, according to the CDC. None of the 68 probable U.S. cases has ended in death.

The cruise line reported the patient as a possible SARS case, and health care workers who transported and treated her have taken preventive measures to avoid infection, said Kerre Fisher, the state public health preparedness information officer.

The woman is being kept in an isolated room in which the room's air doesn't circulate to other parts of the hospital, Fisher said. The hallways were cleared when the patient was taken to her room. Bartlett officials on Saturday referred the Empire to Fisher for comment. The state first publicized the case Friday afternoon.

Health care workers at Bartlett will try to find out what is causing the fever and pneumonia, Dr. Funk said. Specimens from the woman will be sent to a state lab in Fairbanks and to a CDC lab to test for SARS. The results can take weeks.

The woman must remain in isolation, although not necessarily at a hospital, for 10 days after the fever has broken, Funk said. A blood sample must be drawn 21 days after the woman first had the symptoms. That sample will be used in the most definitive test for SARS.

The state did not release the name of the cruise ship the woman was traveling on. Funk said there was no public health reason to do so. But the Holland America Line confirmed to the Anchorage Daily News that the patient was an 85-year-old Canadian who was a passenger on the Volendam. She became ill Wednesday evening.

The state said it did not restrict the rest of the ship's voyage. The only person identified as having direct, unprotected contact with the patient is her traveling companion, who has not exhibited any SARS symptoms, state health officials said. The cruise line is monitoring the health of people, mainly health care workers, who had contact with the patient after she showed symptoms of her illness, Fisher said.

Holland America told the Daily News that the patient's cabin has been isolated and will be sanitized. The company's spokesman could not be reached for comment Saturday.

The patient is the second possible case recorded in Alaska. A 28-year-old male cargo jetliner pilot from China was hospitalized in Anchorage in mid-May. He recovered. So far, none of the lab tests showed he had SARS, Funk said.

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