Local News

UNC Workers Concerned About Health After Orange County Man Diagnosed With SARS

Posted June 13, 2003

— Two people who work with an Orange County man who has severe acute respiratory syndrome are in isolation after coming down with respiratory illnesses and pneumonia. State health officials said there is no evidence the two have SARS, but that is no comfort to others who worked with him.

Hundreds of people who worked with the man at UNC-Chapel Hill, some wearing masks, crowded under a tent Thursday outside the Giles Horney Building to ask questions about possibled SARS contamination. With one confirmed case and two more people under isolation, some UNC employees are concerned for themselves and their families.

"I was at a meeting with him for a hour-and-a half on the 21st of May and I think he was diagnosed two or three days after that," UNC employee Fletcher Holmes said.

Holmes said UNC and health officials did not do enough to prevent the incident.

"I think it's been kept undercover too long. They let everyone know after the fact, I think," he said.

However, health officials have a different take on the situation.

"We do think it's a significant problem and that is why we are providing all of these resources -- something that in 20 years that I have been at UNC Healthcare Systems that we've never had to do before," said Dr. David Weber, UNC professor of infectious diseases.

UNC officials sent thermometers home with all employees to monitor their temperatures. They will also screen worried workers on Friday. Employees want the building scrubbed down, but UNC officials say they have been told by the Centers For Disease Control that there is no need to do that.

"There's reason to be fearful because this is a mighty disease that kills people. I am totally empathetic to that and that's why we are addressing their concerns today," said Dr. Jeffrey Engel, state epidemiologist.

Health officials are also investigating a patient at Western WakeMed who was admitted with a respiratory illness. Nearly 40 Western Wake employees are being monitored after coming in contact with the person.

Engel and state health director Dr. Leah Devlin said there have been no cases where someone caught SARS from a patient who had no symptoms at the time.

"That is critical for you to know," Devlin said. "The individual in the Orange County case investigation was not symptomatic when he was at work."

Engel also said that worldwide, the workplace has not been a concern for catching SARS. The home and health care settings are the major concerns.

In addition, 12 people at the Orange County health clinic where the SARS case was treated and three people at UNC Hospitals have been quarantined because they were in contact with the man when he was treated. None have shown symptoms. Their quarantine period ends Friday.

Health officials at Western Wake Medical Center are watching a patient who was admitted with a respiratory illness.

The Orange County man worked as an energy consultant in the Giles F. Horney Building and did not have direct contact with students. He visited Toronto in May, becoming the eight confirmed case of SARS in the United States.

The man developed a fever and respiratory problems after his trip. His condition is improving as he recovers at home, where his family also is quarantined.

Health officials in Canada said this week that the North Carolina man likely caught SARS from another visitor in a Toronto hospital room.


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