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Severe acute respiratory syndrome and critical care medicine: The Toronto experience

The objectives of this study were to review the epidemiology and clinical characteristics of the Toronto SARS outbreak, the challenges SARS provided to the delivery of critical care, and how we would like to be better organized for a similar challenge in the future.

SARS manifests clinically as atypical pneumonia and ranges in severity from minor nonspecific symptoms to adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Approximately 20% of patients with SARS will  become critically ill and require admission to the intensive care unit. ARDS develops in the majority of these patients. Mortality from ARDS in SARS is high, and outcome is associated with the presence of comorbid disease and the severity of illness at presentation. The influx of critically ill patients and the transmission of SARS to front line workers created a tremendous strain on Toronto’s healthcare system. From a critical care perspective, the most important limitation in the response to SARS was the absence of a coordinated leadership and communication infrastructure. Other challenges encountered during SARS include the following: closure of intensive care unit beds and loss of staff through quarantine and illness, implementing novel infection control protocols, educating staff, conducting research to learn about SARS, system planning, and maintaining staff morale during this very difficult period.

Communication and leadership strategies were key components in the critical care response to SARS. Ideally, centers should have systems in place to allow for the rapid expansion and modification of critical care services in the event of a disease outbreak. Other critical care communities should consider their crisis response strategies in advance of similar events.

KEY WORDS: severe acute respiratory syndrome; critical care; respiratory infection; disease outbreak; disaster planning

Christopher M. Booth, MD; Thomas E. Stewart, MD, FRCPC

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Categories: Disaster,
Content Type: Articles,