Worries over mystery virus chill Seattle's ties with Asian cities


The Oregonian

Seattle health officials are scrambling to diagnose the worried people filling hospital emergency rooms as local business travelers rethink Asian itineraries and a junior-high school band cancels its dream trip to China.

Four suspected cases of a mystery virus are rattling Puget Sound, where the daily tide of commerce is rife with people and goods from Asian cities in which the potentially deadly respiratory disease is most prevalent.

It's way too soon to assess what physical, psychological or financial toll that severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, will have on the region. But with four suspected cases identified in the Seattle area since Friday, fear of the pneumonialike disease is spreading fast.

The two latest cases involve two brothers -- ages 3 and 5 -- who recently returned from the China's Guangdong province. The two boys' cases were not considered life-threatening, nor were two earlier cases concerning a 2-year-old boy and a 44-year-old container-ship worker.

Although Seattle's response to SARS escalates, it remains mild compared to the reaction further north in Vancouver, B.C., where 18 suspected cases have prompted some residents to wear surgical masks around the city. Canadian health officials said Wednesday they hope to open a SARS-only clinic so the "worried well" stop clogging emergency rooms.

In Hong Kong, where SARS fears are perhaps highest, more than 200 suspected cases were quarantined in isolation camps. As of last count, more than 2,200 people, mostly Asians, had been infected worldwide. At least 78 people have died -- none in the United States.

SARS fears are driven in part because it has such generic symptoms -- a fever over 100.4, respiratory troubles and recent Asian travels. Another fear factor is the fact health officials still don't know what it is, how to confirm its existence or how to cure it.

Puget Sound is as linked to Asia as perhaps any region in the country. Washington state is the nation's fifth biggest exporter -- Oregon ranks about 25th -- with Japan, China and Singapore being its three largest trade partners.

Asia is a routine destination for Puget Sound business travelers and vice versa for Asian travelers who frequent Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on 25 flights a week from Tokyo, Taipei and Seoul. The flights routinely carry passengers from SARS-effected cities, so all incoming passengers are screened by health officials before they are allowed off the jets.

Washington state trade officials say SARS hasn't lightened the weekly ebb and flow of Asian container ships in Puget Sound, but travel agencies say the impact of the disease is obvious.

Four of every five callers Wednesday to Asian Pacific Travel was calling to postpone or cancel a flight to Asia, said Hideo Tsuzuki, manager of the Seattle travel agency.

Tsuzuki says travelers panicked after the recent alert by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, advising people to avoid trips to mainland China; Hong Kong; Singapore; and Hanoi, Vietnam. Tsuzuki says SARS fears threaten his company, noting he has decided to cut staff hours by 20 percent in April.

Microsoft reports it has urged employees to postpone Asia travel plans. Seattle-area sales representatives for Boeing -- which has offices in Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing and other Asian cities -- are worried enough about visiting Asian clients that a company doctor was invited to brief them on SARS Tuesday.

An employee in Boeing's Hong Kong office was diagnosed with SARS, said Boeing spokesman Bob Saling. The man, who has returned to work after missing a couple days, described his illness to Saling as similar to a mild case of pneumonia.

At Kenmore Junior High School, north of Seattle, SARS fears did what the war on Iraq and national terrorism alerts could not -- stop the award-winning school band from going to China.

The 60-member band had rehearsed for a year, usually during nonschool hours, for four scheduled performances later this month in China. School officials kept the trip plans until federal officials and the World Health Organization started warning travelers against visiting China.

"When I broke the news to them, it was difficult," said school principal James Ivory. "There were lots of tears, from boys and girls. They worked for a year for this thing."

The Seattle and King County Public Health agency is trying to alert doctors and health workers to SARS symptoms without excessively alarming the public, said James Apa, agency spokesman.

Apa said the agency is trying to figure out why the suspected local cases were relatively mild, and definitely not life threatening. "It may be that these individuals turn out not to be SARS cases," he said.

Yet Apa noted his agency is swamped, crafting emergency plans to deal with a worst-case scenario in which SARS turns deadly and spreads as swiftly in Puget Sound as it has in some Asian cities.

Jim Lynch: 360-867-9503; lynchj@attbi.com


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