While Health Officials Continue to Insist the Outbreak is ëUnder Controlí and ëWinding Down,í the Death Toll from Unidentified Respiratory Illness at Toronto Nursing Home Jumps to 16

A rapidly rising death toll has cast unwelcome attention on Toronto, a city still recovering from an outbreak of SARS that killed 44 people in 2003 and cost the economy over $1 billion.

This outbreak, which is getting wider coverage each day, is beginning to scare people and could have a long-lasting damage to Toronto’s tourism industry. One official commented: "SARS killed us economically. We really don’t need this."

However, with the death rate approaching 20% of those affected, the outbreak is now among the most lethal the province typically sees, said Dr. Barbara Yaffe, Toronto’s director of communicable disease control. "This is a particularly serious situation," said Yaffe. "This one is particularly severe."

Toronto residents, as well as tourists staying in town during this outbreak, are finding it more and more difficult to accept city health officials’ assurances that the deadly outbreak at a nursing home is “under control.”

Only yesterday, ten elderly residents of a Toronto nursing home had died and another 64 had become ill after contracting the still unidentified respiratory illness. Five employees of the Seven Oakes home for the aged had also been affected by the mysterious illness.

By today, however, the outbreak in the eastern part of the city had killed 16 and made 70 of the home’s 250 residents ill. The illness has sent some 40 residents to the hospital.

Although health officials have been stressing the fact that the dead have been elderly and infirm and that there is no danger to the general public, 13 employees and 5 visitors to the home have now been affected.

Toronto health officials are assuring the public that the infection is not related to SARS, or avian flu. They believe it to be one of the typical respiratory illnesses that commonly occur each year but do not pose a threat to the greater public.

This particular outbreak has become a concern because it has now affected so many people at one time. In 2004, 11 people died as a result of an outbreak at another nursing home in Ontario.

“The outbreak remains under control,” said David McKeown, M.D., of Toronto’s Medical Office of Health. “The good news is that the number of new cases has really dropped off.” However, he added that he “would not be surprised to see additional deaths” among those already ill.

Seven Oaks has instituted full-scale infection control measures, including a ban on visitors. Staffers caring for the residents are required to wear masks, gowns, and gloves.

According to Dr. McKeown, the home has also instituted “cohort nursing,” in which groups of residents are consistently cared for by the same staff members to minimize contacts that might spread infection.

The eight hospitals that have admitted sick residents are also following the strict protocols for respiratory illnesses put in place during the killer SARS outbreak in 2003.

While health officials have already ruled out SARS and the avian flu, they readily concede they might never identify the cause of this deadly outbreak.

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