KHN Morning Briefing

Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations

United States Unprepared for SARS Outbreak, Health Officials Tell Senate Subcommittee

U.S. hospitals lack the equipment and staff necessary to detect and treat an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, federal health officials said on July 30 at a Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. Dr. Marjorie Kanof of the General Accounting Office testified that a GAO report released July 30 shows that hospitals generally have only one protective suit and one appropriate isolation bed for contagious patients (Orris, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 7/31). The GAO report, based on a survey of 2,000 hospitals, states that if a widespread outbreak of SARS occurs, entire hospital wards and their staffs -- or entire hospitals -- might have to be used as isolation facilities. That scenario could lead to "severe overcrowding" at hospitals, according to the report (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 7/30). Dr. James Hughes, director of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Disease, said that it is unlikely that any U.S. hospital would meet new federal SARS prevention guidelines (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 7/31). A CDC task force in September is expected to release guidelines to instruct hospitals and communities about how to screen for and isolate people with SARS, Hughes said.

No Rapid Diagnostic Test Available
There still is no rapid and accurate diagnostic test for health facilities to screen on-site for SARS, the Wall Street Journal reports. Dr. Klaus Stohr, head of the World Health Organization's flu program, said such a test would not be available to physicians by flu season. Instead, health workers will continue to send samples to health department labs for SARS diagnoses, the Journal reports (McKay/Naik, Wall Street Journal, 7/31). Although SARS now appears to be contained, health officials have said that the virus could resurface in colder weather (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 7/30). A recent study conducted in the Guangdong province in China, where SARS is believed to have first appeared, showed the difficulty in distinguishing SARS from other respiratory illness, according to Stohr. The study found that about 20% of 46,000 pneumonia patient records analyzed showed clinical symptoms that also could be SARS. The illness has infected more than 8,400 people and led to 812 deaths worldwide (Wall Street Journal, 7/31). The GAO report is available online. Note: You must have Adobe Acrobat Reader to view the report.

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