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Federal agents trained to spot SARS

Thousands of customs and immigrations inspectors and other federal homeland security workers are being trained to spot symptoms of sudden acquired respiratory syndrome and have orders to detain people who exhibit them.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Thousands of customs and immigrations agents and other federal homeland security workers are being trained to spot symptoms of SARS and have orders to detain people who exhibit them. The training is part of the federal government’s effort to prevent an outbreak in the United States of severe acute respiratory syndrome — the highly contagious illness known as SARS.

Travelers who might exhibit SARS symptoms, including high fever, dry cough, breathing trouble, or say that they are experiencing them, would be detained and a public health official would be summoned for a medical evaluation, officials from the Department of Homeland Security said.

The department’s spokesman, Dennis Murphy, said 22 major U.S. airports, including John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Los Angeles International Airport, now have public health officials on the scene. Other airports, he said, have public health officials on call.

Training sessions underway
The U.S. training sessions to spot SARS have been going on for about a month, largely set in motion by an April 4 executive order by President Bush that gave federal health officials authority to quarantine people sick with SARS, Murphy said.

The Bush order stems from an incident in which a traveler arriving in the United States with possible SARS symptoms refused detention and got on a train for further travel. Health officials had to scramble to see who the traveler may have exposed before determining he did not have SARS, said Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gerberding said quarantine officials have been stationed at airports for decades to detect disease and are sensitive to the inconvenience of detention. “We really do try to be respectful of citizens rights,” she told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Wednesday.

Robert Bonner, commissioner of the department’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, said special attention was being given to passengers arriving in the United States on 51 daily flights from Asia, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Beijing.

“We have the authority to detain any individual who appears to have SARS, and we can, will and should exercise that authority,” Bonner said.

Infrared detectors considered
There are 63 probable U.S. cases of SARS, with late April being the latest onset of illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to the CDC, most of the U.S. cases of SARS have occurred among travelers returning to the United States from other parts of the world affected by SARS.

The disease has peaked in Singapore, Hong Kong and Toronto. China and Taiwan remain the major hot spots where cases are still increasing.

“China has the resources necessary to deal with this,” David Heymann, head of the World Health Organization’s communicable diseases program, told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday. “But public health has been neglected in China. ... We don’t know if China will commit the full resources necessary.”

Hong Kong has installed an infrared system to try to detect incoming travelers who have a fever. So far 37 have been identified and it’s something the agency is watching to see if it will be useful to install in other countries’ airports, Heymann said.

Noting that the University of California has refused to admit 500 students from China for summer school this year, Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., asked Heymann about the proper criteria for turning people away from the United States. Heymann said guidelines include whether they have had contact with a SARS patient or if they’ve been in a hospital that has treated SARS within the previous 10 days.

Workers 'on alert'
The Homeland Security Department’s efforts include customs agents, immigration inspectors, workers who screen people and baggage at airports, and employees who work at detention centers, Murphy said.

Basic information about SARS symptoms has been distributed to all workers involved, Murphy said. And training sessions with health officials have also been taking place, said Bill Anthony, a spokesman with the department’s Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.

“We’ve issued instructions essentially telling our people at borders, airports and detention centers to be on the alert for people exhibiting symptoms,” Murphy said.

The department also has made masks and gloves available to workers if they encounter someone with SARS symptoms, Murphy said. Otherwise, workers “don’t normally wear them,” he said.

According to the CDC’s Web site, the primary way that SARS appears to spread is by close person-to-person contact. SARS can be transmitted by touching the skin of other people or touching objects that are contaminated with infectious droplets — left behind when someone infected with SARS coughs or sneezes — and then touching your eye, nose or mouth. It also is possible that SARS can be spread more broadly through the air or by other ways that are not currently known, the CDC says.