SARS cases linked to religious group

Canadian Press, Apr. 14, 2003

TORONTO (CP) _ A large cluster of SARS cases, most of which had been previously reported, has been linked to a Toronto branch of an international Catholic sect, health officials said Monday.

There are 10 probable and 19 suspect cases among the Bukas-Loob Sa Diyos Covenant group, said Dr. Sheela Basrur, the city’s chief medical officer of health.

Two physicians who treated members of the group have also been diagnosed with severe acute respiratory syndrome, Basrur said.

And in another sweeping move intended to contain the outbreak, the group’s 500 members in the Toronto area have all been placed under quarantine.

Members of the group first became exposed to SARS at the funeral of a victim of the disease two weeks ago, Basrur said.

There was initially some confusion about whether the BLD Covenant cases were new, but Basrur clarified that the majority had previously been diagnosed.

“The majority of cases were actually previously identified and now, the pattern is emerging that has linked them all together,” Basrur told reporters.

Three of the BLD Covenant cases are children under the age of 10 and are receiving medical care at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. All are in good health, said associate medical officer of health Dr. Elizabeth Rae.

Officials were initially reluctant to identify the religious group because of privacy issues, but because a letter from health officials to the group was obtained by some media outlets, BLD Covenant was identified Monday.

Basrur said there were instances where members of the group who were subsequently found to have SARS had tried to get treatment at hospitals, but did not have a clear link to another SARS case, and so were not diagnosed with the virus.

“In this particular community, there are at least a handful of individuals … who had symptoms … who attended emergency rooms and were not admitted because they did not appear to be connected with any current focus of infection,” she said.

Basrur said efforts were underway to provide hospitals with enough information to ensure that people will be treated as presumptive SARS cases until proven otherwise.

The news came amid a cautious optimism Monday that the worst of the crisis was passing. Thirteen Canadians have died from the disease.

The BLD Covenant could not immediately be reached for comment, but Basrur commended their “exemplary leadership” in co-operating with health officials.

In a letter to the BLD community, Basrur told members to obey quarantine orders and disclose all relevant information to health officials.

“I recognize that these directives will cause disruption and possible hardship to individuals and families,” Basrur wrote in the letter dated Sunday. “However, failure to comply with these requirements will place at risk not only your own health but also the health of your family, BLD members and possibly others in the broader community.

“Failure to comply will also result in legal action being taken against you.”

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