One Man's Opinion: SARS Wars

"Not a single case of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has been reported this year, or in late 2004. It is the first winter without a case since the initial outbreak in late 2002. In addition, the epidemic strain of SARS that caused at least 774 deaths worldwide by June 2003 has not been seen outside of a laboratory since then," from a 2005 report by Jim Yardley, foreign correspondent and now European Editor for The New York Times.

Not long ago in a galaxy not so far away, I was awaiting my flight out of a small coastal airport, having a long phone call with an anxious and agitated client, a talented and skilled hospitality executive in Manhattan. She was wrestling with an evolving situation, at one of New York City and Times Square's then largest hotels, at near sold-out capacity.

The hotel in question was hosting a global health conference. The timing of the conference was not long after the initial outbreak in China of a virulent and deadly respiratory illness, then known as severe acute respiratory syndrome, and later the SARS virus.

A prominent researcher, epidemiologist and physician who had treated early SARS' patients back home in China, gave a guest lecture at the conference on the illness. Overnight he felt a fever and difficulty breathing, checked out of the hotel early and headed for an international flight home, stopping for a lay-over in Germany. By the time the doctor reached Europe, his fever had sky-rocketed, and he had to be assisted to travel to a German hospital for treatment. There in Germany, he was diagnosed as having SARS.

Initial concerns were for the housekeeping crew who had already cleaned and removed linens in the doctor's room, as viral experts had already indicated that transmission predominantly occurred via the transmission of or exposure to bodily fluids of someone carrying the virus. The hotel was placed briefly under quarantine.

Between November 2002, and July of 2003, an outbreak of SARS, initially in southern China, brought later diagnosis of eventually 8,098 cases, resulting in 774 deaths reported by 17 countries. This resulted in an extremely high fatality rate of 9.5 percent, with the bulk of deaths occurring in Hong Kong and mainland China.

No new cases of SARS have been diagnosed or reported since 2004, and there is still no vaccine. The Corona Virus, COVID 19, is a viral 'cousin' of SARS, though it's fatality rate today is significantly lower, currently estimated at 2-3%. As with SARS, the elderly, and those with compromised immune and respiratory systems are at greatest risk. The virus is transmitted via human bodily fluids, most commonly via a sneeze, human contact or a contaminated surface containing bodily fluids.

By 2017, scientists in China had determined that the virus likely crossed over to humans via the droppings of horseshoe bats in the Yunnan province of China. Among the theories for the initial transmission of COVID 19 is another potential animal to human viral transference.

In the SARS case, it was determined that there were also occasionally 'super carriers' whose immune systems were effectively fighting off the illness, but who often were also heavy travelers who exposed multiple population segments to the infection. Not surprisingly, expert physicians, researchers and epidemiologists exposed to SARS in its early days of diagnosis were among those who also unknowingly carried and spread the disease. Since then the smart folks have gotten smarter about how and when to travel during an infectious disease outbreak.

And health experts have also shared that wearing face masks can prevent those infected from coughing or sneezing their germs or the virus across a room, or the six-foot suggested 'human contact' barrier, but no mask is secure or effective enough to prevent germs from getting in.

Back at the hotel, and across the several thousand properties owned or franchised by this hotelier, the company took additional preventative hygiene measure such as wiping all public surfaces with a bleach/water solution and more extensively cleaning all public restrooms. None of the hospitality staff, nor other conference attendees contracted SARS.

Hopefully our experience will be repeated this go-round, but the responsibility for taking these common-sense steps and protections fall on each of us, not just on the CDC, the White House or any of the many other global health experts, who in some cases may be among the first to fall ill... Health and wellness and public health belong to all of us. As you hear a sneeze and say, "Bless you," remember it's okay to keep a safe distance, and to suggest to the sneezer the upsides of washing those hands. Just like Mama always used to say.

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