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15 years later: How SARS helped improve Toronto health care

Toronto hospitals say it’s a new era of healthcare fifteen years after SARS gripped the city and led to the quarantine of thousands of residents.

Isolation pods, advanced air ventilation systems and separate preparations rooms for staff are now becoming standard in Toronto hospitals – all important lessons gleaned from the SARS crisis that gripped the city in 2003.

Dr. Brian Schwartz, chief of communicable diseases, Emergency Preparedness and Response for Public Health Ontario, says every level of health care has evolved since the SARS crisis.

Schwartz, who was vice-chair of the Ontario’s SARS Scientific Advisory Committee, says both hospital care levels and public awareness have made huge strides forward.

“I think we’re both proud of the fact that we have come a long way in prevention of disease transmission not just in hospitals, but in long-term care settings and with the public,” Schwartz said.

On April 23, 2003, the World Health Organization issued an advisory, warning travellers to stay away from Toronto. By the time SARS was contained, 44 people in Canada would die from the virus, about 400 became ill and 25,000 Toronto residents were placed in quarantine.

Michael Garron Hospital held a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday to unveil its $411 million renovation planned for the east Toronto facility.

Kirsten Martin, director of redevelopment, says the new design factors in infection control in every aspect of the project.

Among the changes, a new eight-story patient care centre will include 215 acute care beds — 80 per cent are to be single-patient rooms.

“That’s a huge advancement,” Martin said, “Contact, or contamination between patients, is limited when you have one patient per room.”

Toronto Western Hospital renovated its ICU in 2007, adding six isolation pods with negative air flow design to limit the spread of airborne viruses.

“We actually used some of those lessons learned to help influence the way that we designed that isolation section or pod,” said Dr. Susy Hota, medical director of University Health Network’s infection prevention and control program.

Hota says adjacent from each of the isolation rooms is an ante-chamber for staff to don and doff protective gear before entering the room.

“It’s all under negative pressure and isolation which means that we’re able to control the direction and flow of air so that it contains anything that may be an infectious particle within that pod and it won’t go outside that pod and cause infection in other patients,” Hota said.

The Michael Garron renovations are set to be fully completed in 2024.