SARS fear spreads across campus

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By Stephen Huebl

Concerns over a potentially deadly and highly contagious virus that is sweeping the globe have caused Ryerson to cancel all nursing classes and hospital placements.

Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, commonly referred to as SARS, has so far killed six people in Toronto and has prompted the closure of a number of area hospitals.

The virus has no known cure and has a mortality rate of between three and five per cent. The main symptoms of SARS are high fever, a dry cough, shortness of breath or breathing difficulties.

An e-mail was sent out to the Ryerson community this week advising students that seven nursing students had been put under a 10-day quarantine. The students were in placements at Scarborough Grace and Mt. Sinai Hospitals and were undergoing the same preventative procedure as anyone else who has been in the hospitals in recent weeks.

A Ryerson continuing education student has also been placed in quarantine after reporting SARS symptoms. At the time of publication she was still not diagnosed with SARS.

Phil Schalm, director of community services for CE, said the Toronto public health unit decided to quarantine the student’s entire class just four hours after initially deciding a full quarantine was not necessary.

The Ministry of Health announced on Monday that it is best not to cluster health care workers in an attempt to contain the virus. A spokesperson from the Ministry said the warning was issued because “27 per cent of those affected are health care workers.”

As a result of the advice from the ministry, the university decided to cancel all classes for two weeks with large numbers of nursing students, including clinical and professionally-related courses.

“We’ve never dealt with this kind of thing before. We’re looking to public health for guidance in this situation,” Schalm said, adding “caution is a very good thing right now.”

The School of Nursing quickly cancelled all nursing placements after the hospital quarantines were issued, affecting hundreds of students.

Nursing students are required to do placements as part of their academic program.

Kileen Tucker Scott, director of the school of nursing, said the students only had one week left of their placement, and will now carry on with non-clinical work, assignments, and studying.

Asked if she thought the situation was being blown out of proportion, Scott replied, “Do we underestimate that SARS is a major health concern? Not in the least,” she said. “We’re taking it very seriously as is the medical officer of health.”

Scott said they have received numerous calls from concerned students and parents seeking assurance that the school is looking out for the safety of students.

It has also affected about 1,200 to 1,400 CE nursing students who take the majority of their classes at area hospitals.

Ruth Wojtiuk, manager of nursing for CE, said those classes have been cancelled for the remainder of the semester. She said the professors will be in contact with their students to discuss how they can complete their outstanding course requirements.

Ryerson exchange students studying overseas are also being affected by the SARS outbreak.

Errol Aspevig, vice-president academic, announced at the Board of Governors meeting that there are currently seven exchange students in Hong Kong whose host universities have been closed for five days because of SARS.

Aspevig said Ryerson has received calls from the parents of those students in Hong Kong are worried their kids won’t be able to complete the requirements for their courses.

“We informed them that we would do what we need to do to ensure that they would get the credits they need.”

Laura Istanboulian, secretary of the Canadian Student’s Nursing Association at Ryerson, can’t believe how the situation is unfolding.

“Isn’t it something,” she said. “Not that I feel panic, but it’s something major.”

Her cousin, who has a background in microbiology, predicts the world is due for another global outbreak of some kind of disease or virus. She added that global diseases are nature’s way of keeping the population in check.

“Whether this is the one or not, I don’t know, but it reminds us that this happens naturally,” she said.

For third-year nursing student Kelley Simpson, SARS has hit a little too close to home for her liking. Her mother is the manager for same-day surgery at Scarborough Grace Hospital and is now quarantined at home.

The hospital sent home all non-essential staff and cancelled all elective surgery due to the spread of SARS within the hospital.

Simpson said her mom has to stay at home and wear a surgical mask at all times.

She said her dad tries to stay at separate ends of the house.

“I’m a little worried,” she said. “We don’t know much about it or how to treat it.”

Annica Ali, a first-year nursing student, said the school is taking the right preventative measures.

“I think it’s been handled properly,” she said. “Some students are concerned about who these [quarantined] students are.”

There are some who think the public is overreacting and that the media is only contributing to that overreaction.

Nuri Sidhu, a first-year social work student, is one of those people.

“I think it’s an overreaction,” she said. “It’s one of those things where the media hyped it up more than it needed to be.”

Sidhu said the fact that China Town is much less busy these days is an example of public overreaction.

Walter von Boetticher, a part-time student taking child youth care, also thinks the situation has been blown out of proportion.

“I think there’s a lot of viruses out there that are very dangerous that are not getting the hype, like hep C and TB, whih are probably just as dangerous as SARS,” he said.

He said when his friend cleared his throat on the subway, two people sitting beside him got up and changed seats.

“People are overreacting,” he said.

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