Aid workers fight SARS outbreak with caution

Airborne virus prompts new set of safeguards

April 12, 2003|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

TORONTO - Wearing a tight-fitting face mask, latex gloves and a Red Cross vest, Gurmeet Bambrah carefully lays a big, brown envelope up against the door of a single-family home in an east-side neighborhood here, knocks, then backs away and waits.

A middle-aged woman donning a mask herself eventually opens up, and Bambrah points to the package.

"OK, thanks," says the woman before disappearing back inside.

This is relief work in the age of SARS.

For two weeks, volunteers for the Canadian Red Cross have been working long days delivering face masks, thermometers and health information to the thousands of people quarantined in their homes because of fears that they have been exposed to the deadly virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome. Together with workers from St. John Ambulance, another relief agency, they have donated 4,899 hours on 604 shifts.

The Red Cross motto here is: Anywhere. Anytime.

Volunteers deliver meals to elderly and disabled people who can't cook. They bring blankets and health supplies to the homeless. They help find housing for families displaced by fire. A few years ago, they provided relief during a paralyzing ice storm.

But workers say they have never done anything quite like this.

Customarily, they have face-to-face contact with the people they serve. This time, they can't.

"Now we're interacting with the front door," said volunteer Kathy Ross-Waugh, a retired chef who is heading the SARS Disaster Response Team for the agency's Toronto region office.

Aside from Asia, Canada has been the country hardest hit by a disease that has sickened thousands and killed more than a hundred worldwide. As of yesterday, there had been 266 probable or suspected cases in this country, most of them in Ontario, and 10 deaths.

To help contain the outbreak, public health officials have ordered thousands of residents into quarantine for 10 days, the incubation period of the disease, if they have had any contact with a known SARS patient or have visited either of two city hospitals that have since suspended new admissions because of infections there.

Many of those in isolation aren't infected and don't become sick. But the idea is that they could, and then pass on their illness to others.

Quarantined people are asked to wear a face mask when anyone in the household is in the same room, sleep in separate quarters and wash their hands regularly. They should also take their temperatures and change their masks twice daily. No visitors - even from the Red Cross - are allowed inside. If they have questions about the rules, they can phone one of two SARS hot lines or pick up the local paper: The Ontario health ministry has been running full-page ads containing information and instructions related to the outbreak.

Though the number in quarantine changes daily as people come in and go out, about 5,000 people were isolated in their homes as of Thursday - including everyone from a high school and an adjoining middle school.

"We're here helping people in need because they're self-quarantined, trying to get a handle on this outbreak so it doesn't become an epidemic," said long-time Red Cross volunteer Domenic Salvatore, 35, who has been given time off from his job as a postal worker to help coordinate the relief effort.

"There's a lot of uncertainty with this outbreak," he explained. "There's a lot of fear out there. In my own workplace, people don't even want to come near me because they think I have SARS."

The disaster team's emergency operations center looks like a well-used conference room on the second floor of headquarters, which sits on one of the city's busiest thoroughfares. That's where volunteers organize the boxes of health kits put together by Toronto Public Health; they've delivered more than 3,424 of them since the effort began March 29.

At home base, workers photocopy maps and highlight the location of each property, so drivers and their "runners" - those who go up to the front door - can figure out where they're headed. Some of the elderly volunteers have to use magnifying glasses to read the street names.

When they first launched the SARS effort, Ross-Waugh and her husband, David, a retired geologist who is in charge of the disaster team's logistics, were working 12- to 15-hour days.

"Six [days] on, one off and then back again," said Ross-Waugh, who also did relief work in New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Now, though, things are back to what she calls "normal": just 10-hour shifts at a time.

Posted near Ross-Waugh's desk are a few recent newspaper clippings on SARS, including one intricately describing proper hand-washing techniques as well as which spots are most frequently missed. Another clipping shows different styles of masks being worn in Hong Kong, where thousands of people are in quarantine and fears of the disease run high. One mask features the picture of a cat, another bears leopard spots, a third polka-dots.

Bambrah, for her part, is not scared of the work.

"You've got to think logically," she explained during a delivery run Thursday with driver Laura Byers, 27, who normally handles Red Cross public relations. "If you just sit back and do nothing to help to try and contain this, it will eventually come back to you. ... I see it more as a public duty than anything else."

Bambrah, 46, who immigrated from Kenya last year and is looking for full-time work as a civil engineer, does everything to protect herself while on duty - and then some. She backs away from the door at least five or six feet once she has dropped off the medical supplies. She disposes of her gloves in a special plastic bag. And she cleans off her cell phone with a baby-wipe after using it during rounds, just in case.

"It's easy to be a little light-hearted about these things, but you shouldn't," she said. "You should take every precaution."

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