TORONTO – Scores of nurses rallied outside a hospital at the center of Canada's SARS (search) outbreak Wednesday for better pay and working conditions in facing the pneumonia-like virus that has killed 32 people.
The demonstrators complained they are asked to confront a dangerous disease at regular pay levels, while agency nurses for temporary duty get more money for the same work.
Ontario Health Minister Tony Clement (search) responded by saying nurses and some health care specialists, such as X-ray technicians working at special SARS clinics being set up at four Toronto hospitals, will get premium pay, similar to the $48 an hour for the agency nurses.
The four clinics will handle all cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome in Toronto (search). Officials said Wednesday the number of probable cases was 67, three more than the previous day. Two of the three new cases were nurses exposed while inserting breathing tubes in SARS patients, they said.
The intubation procedure was proving risky for nurses despite the double layer of protective gloves, masks and gowns they wear, said Dr. Andrew Simor, a microbiologist involved in the city's SARS containment effort.
"It's obviously very disturbing that health care workers still are getting sick," Simor said.
At Scarborough General Hospital, one of the four SARS hospitals, protesting nurses said the issue involved more than money.
"None of us knows what the effects of SARS will be in the long-term," said Lesline Alleyne, who works in a SARS unit.
She complained that nurses use respirator masks that block 95 percent of contaminants, instead of better ones considered 100 percent effective.
Toronto has so far avoided a new World Health Organization travel advisory despite a renewed outbreak of SARS weeks after officials thought they had the illness under control.
The U.N. health agency discussed the possibility of warning against travel to Toronto on both Tuesday and Wednesday, but decided against it because the new cases appeared under control with no spread in the general population, said WHO spokesman Dick Thompson.
Health officials in Toronto provided further signs the outbreak was receding, saying that 987 people remained in home quarantine because of possible SARS exposure, down from more than 5,000 the day before.
Toronto authorities thought they had the illness under control after the initial cluster appeared in March and April, but an undiagnosed case at North York General Hospital led to a further spread among other patients, family members and health care workers.
The second cluster of SARS cases landed Toronto back on a WHO list of SARS-affected cities or regions. The U.N. agency also previously issued a travel advisory for Toronto, but rescinded it a week later after Canadian officials complained it was unwarranted and promised better screening of international travelers for SARS.