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CDC: New lab test to help count SARS cases

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding holds a health alert notice being given to international travelers.
At a Senate hearing Tuesday, CDC Director Dr. Julie Gerberding holds a health alert notice being given to international travelers.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Health officials in the United States are adding a third category to their count of SARS cases -- those confirmed by laboratory tests -- the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced Tuesday.

Dr. Julie Gerberding told a Senate hearing on severe acute respiratory syndrome that the lab tests "add a degree of precision" to SARS monitoring. Previously, the CDC was counting SARS cases as either "suspect" or "probable."

But Gerberding cautioned that the test results are not absolute -- a negative test may not mean a patient is completely free of SARS, she said.

"We have more to learn about the (test) interpretation. We're putting this out as an additional tool for classifying individuals with the suspicion of SARS, but we are continuing to cast a very broad net for isolation precautions because we don't want to overlook any potential infectious people," Gerberding said.

Gerberding was one of three top health officials testifying Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

James Young, the commissioner of public security in Ontario, and Paul Gully, the senior director of Canada's Public Health Branch, described the SARS outbreak in Canada and what was done to control it.

"The problem for us in responding to SARS has been the fact that we know so little about it," Young said.

Toronto's SARS source

Young said all the SARS cases in Toronto could be traced back to one resident who contracted the disease in Hong Kong and became ill after returning home. That patient subsequently died.

The 43-year-old son of that patient became ill and went to a Toronto hospital on March 16 -- four days after the first global warning about SARS, Young said. The man was not put into isolation, Young said, and "our cases take off from this point."

From there, the disease spread to health care workers in that hospital and also to friends and relatives of the original victim, Young said.

"It took us time to recognize the initial hospital case and to make the contacts from the case," Young said, adding that "strict and effective" isolation measures were imposed.

One hospital was temporarily closed to new admissions and emergency cases and restrictions and infection control procedures were imposed in all Toronto hospitals, Young said.

"The lesson for all of us is that it only takes one case to start a new breakout," he said.

In a related development, the World Health Organization announced it will lift its SARS-based advisory against travel to Toronto, effective Wednesday. (Full story)

U.S. not 'out of the woods'

Earlier Tuesday, Dr. James Hughes, the director of the U.S. National Center for Infectious Diseases, an office of the CDC, said that despite the relatively low number of cases in the United States, "We most definitely are not out of the woods.

"We must maintain vigilance. We live in a global village. People move rapidly around the world. This disease could be reintroduced to the United States at any time," Hughes told CNN.

A recent CNN-USA Today poll shows 43 percent of Americans are worried that they or a family member will become a victim of SARS. Hughes said those worries are normal and not an overreaction.

"We've been fortunate we have not encountered one of these hypertransmitters or super-spreaders. There clearly are some people with this disease -- for reasons that we don't understand -- that are unusually able to very efficiently transmit the virus to people who are not protected by using appropriate infection-control precautions," Hughes said. "We've not identified one of those in the United States so far, but that could change at any time."

"We're providing travelers who are coming into the United States from SARS-affected areas with information on the disease," he said. "And we're providing advice to them that if they become ill with symptoms consistent with SARS that they actually notify their health care provider ... We'd prefer that such people not just walk into big city emergency rooms."

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