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Thousands quarantined; third Beijing hospital closes

Saturday, April 26, 2003

BEIJING -- A third Beijing hospital was sealed off Friday because of the SARS virus and more than 4,000 people were quarantined at home, part the capital city's sweeping measures that some angry residents say have come too late.

A waitress at a hotel complained that "the government hardly told us anything about SARS" a week ago.

"Now we're having a big campaign, but I still have suspicions that we're not getting all the information," said the woman, who would give only her family name, Chen.

The closure of Ditan Hospital in the northern part of the city came less than two weeks after foreign reporters were invited to tour the facility that officials were touting as a showcase of the government's SARS preparedness.

It wasn't clear how many patients and staff remained inside Ditan, which specializes in infectious diseases and has 500 beds and 643 workers. Yellow police tape was strung across the carefully guarded entrance.

A hospital official said it was closed to prevent spreading the SARS virus among visitors and non-SARS patients. Medical staff can "go out and come in with work passes," said the official, who gave only her surname, Li.

According to new figures from the Health Ministry, Beijing's SARS cases had risen to 870 -- about a third of China's total of 2,601. The nationwide death toll stood at 115, with 42 fatalities in Beijing.

Meanwhile, disease experts disagreed over whether the respiratory virus that has killed 275 and sickened nearly 4,600 people worldwide can ever be contained. Although more than nine out of 10 people recover, epidemiologists are troubled by its fast spread in some areas and researchers are trying to find a cure.

Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, the former head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called it "very unrealistic" to think you can "magically" stop its spread. Koplan was in Hong Kong as a consultant to SARS researchers at the University of Hong Kong.

'We have a chance'

However, a World Health Organization official disagreed.

"This disease, we do not feel, should become a disease that is endemic in any country where it occurs," said David Heymann, the communicable disease chief for WHO, who previously worked for the CDC. "We have a chance to stop this disease."

This week WHO added Beijing and Toronto to the list of places travelers should avoid, but Canadian officials said Friday that the health agency director will reconsider the matter next week.

Dr. Mike Ryan, coordinator of WHO's global alert network, said, "Certainly in a country like China, with a very large population, there is a possibility that the disease can become established. But we do have an opportunity to break the cycle of transmission ... and to put this disease back in the box."

One of Beijing's efforts to put SARS back in the box was the quarantine Friday of 4,000 people who had "intimate contact" with others showing SARS symptoms. They were ordered to stay at home.

Guo Jiyong, deputy director general of the Beijing Health Bureau, didn't give details. The city also announced that buildings where SARS infections have been confirmed will become restricted areas, including hospitals, factories, schools, hotels, residential buildings and construction sites.

Cai Fuchao, head of the city's propaganda department, said inspection teams were being sent to 147 hospitals in the capital to ensure that they are following guidelines on handling potential SARS cases. He vowed the government would "absolutely not let a single case slip by."

The heightened campaign comes after Chinese officials drew criticism first for releasing almost no information about the SARS outbreak, then for covering up facts about the disease's spread.

In recent weeks, the government has promoted information on prevention measures like hand-washing and disinfection.

But increasing public indignation compelled a government health official to issue a rare apology, while Beijing's mayor was fired and the health minister was stripped of his posts in the ruling Communist Party.

Complaints have even appeared in the official press, something rarely seen since the party forbids criticism that might undermine its power.

Anger is still evident.

"They've made a complete mess of this," an office worker said while waiting to order a chicken sandwich at a nearly deserted McDonald's restaurant in central Beijing.

"The leaders messed up and people have died, so how can they not step down to take responsibility?" said the man, who identified himself only by his surname, Zhong.

Many people have donned gauze masks and emptied shelves of rice and disinfectant amid rumors that Beijing would be sealed off from the rest of the country. Thousands of students, temporary workers and expatriates have fled, while others debate nightly whether to go or stay. Dormitories at two small universities were closed, affecting 600 students.

At the People's Hospital of Peking University in Beijing, which was shut Thursday, a nurse said life inside was normal despite the quarantine.

"I am not scared as I am with so many colleagues and I think it's the responsibility of a medical worker," said the nurse, who declined to give her name. "But our families are very worried."

She said wards that had been used to treat SARS patients were sealed. The staff sleeps in offices and hospital workers bring food and water to them, she said. Non-SARS patients are undergoing treatment as usual.

"Everybody hopes our sacrifice could help curb the disease sooner," the nurse said.

The third hospital, the People's Armed Police General Hospital, was closed April 9 after staff members fell ill with SARS.

Defying anxiety about SARS, French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin became the first major foreign leader to visit Beijing during the outbreak, saying he wanted to "show solidarity" as China fights the disease.

Beijing's Communist Party secretary, Liu Qi, thanked him for coming, saying, "I truly appreciate this spirit."

"It is the kind of event that could happen to the whole world of today," Raffarin said later. "Viruses know no borders."


EDITOR'S NOTE: Associated Press reporter Christopher Bodeen contributed to this story.


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