Firefighters rap health chief's response to SARS scare



By JILL HARMACINSKI

Staff writer

DANVERS -- The town's health director admitted he mischaracterized a SARS scare at a local hotel by dubbing the incident "a drill" in a report distributed to the town's Board of Health.

The statement by Public Health Director Peter Mirandi upset rescue workers who came in contact with a possibly infected woman and feared contracting the virus.

On Friday, April 11, a 19-year-old Toronto woman staying at the Sheraton Ferncroft was evacuated, per order of the Canadian government, because her father had visited Asia and was exposed to SARS.

The woman was taken by Northshore Ambulance to Logan Airport and flown by private jet back to Toronto -- currently an international hub for SARS infection.

State health officials have since confirmed the woman does not suffer from the contagious respiratory syndrome.

But medical personnel didn't know that April 11, when the ambulance carrying the woman to Logan crashed on Route 1 south. Emergency workers from Danvers and Middleton who responded to the scene became worried about the woman's medical condition and the potential health risks.

While the woman was not infected, her father is now a confirmed SARS case, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

But public safety workers who came in contact with the woman twice that night were concerned Danvers Health Director Peter Mirandi was downplaying the potential health risk they were exposed to, according to Deputy Fire Chief Stephen Prendergast.

Firefighters were extremely concerned about the incident "because there was the potential that the patient may have been exposed to SARS," Prendergast said.

Then, in an April 16 report to the Board of Health, Mirandi referred to the incident as "a drill."

Mirandi yesterday said he used a "poor word choice" to describe the incident.

"That word should not have been used," said Mirandi, the town's health director for the past 13 years.

In the report, Mirandi wrote, "Believe it or not, I was summoned to the Ferncroft Hotel late Friday night to consult on a potential SARS case. The incident turned out to be a drill and no calls have come in from the media. (That's a good thing!)"

Reached yesterday, Mirandi said he shouldn't have labeled the incident as a practice run.

"I referred to it loosely as a drill. I'm sorry I used the term," Mirandi explained.

Danvers Acting Town Manager Diane Norris also confirmed the incident was not a drill.

"That's not a good term," Norris said.

Prendergast agreed.

"This was not a drill. That is incorrect," Prendergast said. "We are not taking this lightly ... it was not a mock disaster."

Several days after the incident, firefighters met with Mirandi and the town's nurse, Leslie Carabello, to discuss their concerns. Mirandi also spoke with a state epidemiologist about the woman's imminent departure from the country.

"We followed up on this," Prendergast said. "We asked Mirandi to follow up through the state and said we'd like to know if there is a potential to be concerned."

Mirandi said he does not know the woman's name and he never saw her on April 11, yet he's confident the woman does not have SARS.

"It was a response but not a necessary response. The girl was not infectious," Mirandi said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Public Health this week also confirmed the woman did not have SARS.

"She was not symptomatic or at risk of being contagious," according to Roseanne Pawelec.

Hotel guests and others participating in the band competition were also not affected, Mirandi added.

He praised Sheraton Ferncroft management for handling the situation swiftly and immediately contacting both Danvers and Middleton health, police and fire officials that night.

"The Sheraton had every barrier you can imagine in place," Mirandi said.

Ferncroft management did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.

Currently, there is no treatment for severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) which has symptoms similar to pneumonia. It has killed at least 250 people worldwide, out of more than 4,000 infected.

Pawelec noted Canada has adopted a strict policy "about quarantining family members in confirmed SARS cases."

She understood why local public safety workers would be concerned in the wake of the April 11 incident.

"It's very unusual circumstances. I can understand the level of anxiety out there," Pawelec said.

Toronto, Canada has been the most affected area outside Asia, with 140 cases and 16 SARS deaths reported as of Wednesday, the Associated Press reported.