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Before There Was Coronavirus There Was SARS, San Antonio Doctor Remembers

Patients put on face masks as they leave the SARS clinic hospital in Toronto during the 2003 outbreak | Hung Vo |
Patients put on face masks as they leave the SARS clinic hospital in Toronto during the 2003 outbreak | Hung Vo |

In 2003, the world watched a strange virus circulate the globe. It was a novel coronavirus, the first to emerge from China in the 21st century. It was making thousands of people sick, and hundreds of people were dying. 

The disease caused by this coronavirus was called SARS; Severe acute respiratory syndrome. Its most dangerous complication was a potentially deadly type of pneumonia. 

Dr. Jan Patterson is a Professor of Medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at UT Health San Antonio. She's an expert on how to prepare for infectious disease outbreaks. In 2003, she was among those who prepared San Antonio for the possibility of an epidemic that never came, but Canada saw two waves of the deadly SARS virus. 

During the second wave, hospitals in Toronto decided they needed help, and Patterson volunteered to go. In Phase II of the Toronto SARS Outbreak, Patterson said one hospital was the source.

"What happened is that visitors who were sick would come and visit people in the hospital and transmit it to people in the hospital, and also it was transmitted to and from healthcare workers," Patterson said. 

Patterson trained workers on infection control techniques at the hospital where the second wave of SARS in Toronto began, North York General. 

"Everybody wore a mask, all day long,” Patterson said, “When you went in to take care of a patient you wore more gear, and in fact the healthcare workers were on what is called work-home quarantine, so they only go to work and come home...they weren't supposed to go to the grocery store, to church, or other events like that."

Hospital workers were also restricted from going to other hospitals, no matter the circumstances. Not even if a family member was dying.

"I remember one of the nurses told her father goodbye on the phone because she had worked in a SARS affected hospital. She couldn’t go to the hospital where he was to visit him. So it was a very sober time," Patterson said.

It's a hard way to learn lessons, but Dr. Patterson said they learned many while they subdued that coronavirus. 

"We implemented what at the time was new for us in waiting areas. We would give people a mask and have them sit away from others."

Precautions like that have since become standard in waiting rooms at doctor’s offices and hospitals during cold and flu season. 

"We made hand sanitizer readily available in waiting areas, by the elevators, also by the door of a patient's room. It wasn't always that way," Patterson added.

They learned a lot about protective gear for medical professionals, and how to safely put it on and take it off. They also learned that sometimes even employees and visitors need to be screened for viruses before being allowed to enter hospitals.

It’s impossible to predict how this latest outbreak will play out, according to Patterson, but no matter what happens, the most important lessons she learned in 2003 will still apply.

"All of us are susceptible to these kinds of things happening. They can happen anywhere. We have to be prepared for them. We have to be — or should be — willing to help each other out as a global community, and take care when we can and help each other as much as we can," Patterson said.

Back in 2003, of the 8,098 people who became infected with SARS, 774 of them died.

Bonnie Petrie can be reached at and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Bonnie Petrie is a proud new member of the news team at WUWM. She is a reporter who - over her twenty year career - has been honored by both the Texas an New York Associated Press Broadcasters, as well as the Radio, Television and Digital News Association, for her reporting, anchoring, special series production and use of sound.
Bonnie Petrie
Bonnie Petrie covers bioscience and medicine for Texas Public Radio.