The most recent official update on the novel coronavirus raises the possibility that most of the recent cluster — 13 cases out of 30 — may be due to the novel disease spreading within one hospital. (Yesterday there were reports of the spread having to do with dialysis. I’m skeptical of that.) Infectious disease experts find the idea of hospital spread very worrisome, because when the related disease SARS arose 10 years ago, hospitals unknowingly caused its first rapid spread. International health authorities are taking this threat seriously: On Monday, the World Health Organization published a multi-page infection-prevention guide for any hospitals that might take in victims.
When SARS broke out of southern China in early 2003, I was in the midst of a year-long project shadowing members of the disease-detective corps of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known as the Epidemic Intelligence Service. Some of the most explosive SARS outbreaks they were sent to investigate were in hospitals, and front-line health care workers were some of the earliest victims.
This is the second of two excerpts from a book I wrote in 2004 about the EIS, Beating Back the Devil, describing what the early days of SARS were like. In the previous one, a hospital swamped by SARS locks its doors, with its sick staff inside. In this one, a doctor who worked in that hospital — and alerted the world to the threat — loses his life to the disease.