May 9, 2003 – Chinese illegal aliens who make their way ashore onto St. John are unlikely to have Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, according to Dr. Gayann Hall, a public health physician with the Health Department.
Since it takes about six weeks for the Chinese to make their way via ship from China to St. John, they have long exceeded the incubation period for the disease, Hall said.
Additionally, she said, the Chinese who have been picked up by immigration officials on St. John have been from China's Fujian province, which has reported no SARS cases.
Hall and other Health Department officials were at the Westin St. John Resort on Friday to conduct a SARS preparedness workshop for the island's "first responders."
No cases of SARS have been recorded in the Virgin Islands. Hall said that if the disease does arrive in the territory, it most likely will come by way of someone who has been in China or another country with a large number of SARS cases within the previous 10 days. As the disease may be in the incubation stage, the traveler may show no symptoms until after arrival in the territory, she said.
Health officials now think that SARS incubates for two to seven days, with 10 days the outside limit.
Hall said that infected people are probably in the contagious stage when they begin to cough and sneeze. "How long are they contagious? We don't know. We're in the middle of the story," she said.
Having the apprehending authorities wear a mask and gloves and immediately mask any illegal aliens discovered on St. John's beaches provides a good defense, she said.
Todd Johnson, interim head of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, formerly the U.S. Immigration Department, said that his agency has new procedures in place.
While illegal aliens found on St. John previously spent many hours in the Cruz Bay police station awaiting immigration agents to transport them to St. Thomas via the public ferry, Johnson aid, immigration authorities now dispatch a van to St. John from St. Thomas by barge. The agents drive directly to the beach or wherever St. John law enforcement officers — most often V.I. National Park rangers — have rounded them up.
From St. Thomas, he said, they're sent as quickly as possible to San Juan.
Health Commissioner Mavis Matthew said she decided to hold the first of a series of SARS workshops on St. John because the island has seen a continual influx of illegal aliens, particularly from China, in recent years. Others workshops will be held on St. Thomas and St. Croix, she said.
Matthew said suspected SARS cases must be reported to her office, rather than to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — or, "even worse," to the news media.
The half-day workshop covered development of the disease, identification of its cause and ways to prevent it.
"Wash your hands," Hall said, stressing that this is the best way to prevent transmission of any communicable diseases.
While health care workers should wear masks, gloves and gowns, suspected patients should be masked immediately because it is now thought that the disease probably spreads by droplets sneezed or coughed onto surfaces or into the air. "You're trying to keep the droplets in the patient," Hall said.
Matthew said the Health Department and cruise line officials are discussing procedures to follow if passengers or crew are suspected of having SARS, so as to avoid its transmission to the territory from such sources.
Hall also unveiled a proposed protocol for keeping SARS contained if it does develop:
The receptionists at the Health Department clinics would be the first line of defense. They are to make sure patients read a sign asking if they have been in China, Hong Kong, Vietnam or the Philippines within the last 10 days. If anyone has, and also has a fever plus shortness of breath or trouble breathing, the receptionist is immediately place a mask on the individual and call the head nurse. If medical personnel suspect SARS, the person is to be taken at once from the clinic to the district's hospital emergency room.
Under the proposed protocol, the Health Department also may quarantine the patient's family to help ensure that the members don't contract the disease.
Publisher's note : Like the St. Croix Source now? Find out how you can love us twice as much — and show your support for the islands' free and independent news voice … click here.