Toronto nurse sues over second SARS outbreak

It could have been prevented, lawyer says

A Toronto nurse who contracted severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) has sued the city, provincial, and federal governments, asserting that the public health authorities halted precautions too soon and put political considerations above health and safety concerns.

She is seeking damages and compensation of $600 million (Canadian), and has asked for the case to be certified as a class action on behalf of about 200 people who became ill from SARS after April 15, 2003.

The Ontario Ministry of Health has not commented on the suit.

In mid-May, Ontario public health authorities declared an end to the SARS epidemic and officials lifted the state of emergency. Hospitals relaxed their infection control precautions related to SARS.

Andrea Williams, a nurse at North York General Hospital, still wanted to wear a mask when she was admitted on May 20 for a surgical procedure, says her attorney, Douglas Elliott of Roy, Elliott, Kim, O’Connor in Toronto. Yet when she emerged from general anesthesia, Williams no longer had her mask and was not given a new one, her suit asserts.

The next day, public health officials alerted Williams that she had been exposed to SARS and needed to be tested. She developed SARS, became "extremely ill," and was hospitalized for a couple of weeks, Elliott says. "If they had just been rigorous about ensuring that the epidemic was over in the first place, then all of these infections would have been prevented, [including] some deaths and very serious debilitating conditions."

In fact, nurses at North York had raised an alarm about a cluster of SARS-like symptoms in five members of a family. That turned out to be the beginning of the second wave of SARS cases.

Elliott contends that the hospital was pressured by public health authorities to relax infection control precautions because the government wanted the World Health Organization to withdraw a travel advisory to the area.

Williams still suffers from some impairment to her memory and concentration that she says is related to her SARS infection and treatment, her attorney adds. "All my clients are worried about what the long-term effects are going to be. There’s still a lot of fatigue as well as other effects."