200 HP workers in Toronto quarantined as SARS precaution

A Hewlett-Packard Co. IT services facility in Toronto has been operating with a replacement workforce since Tuesday, after two workers came down with symptoms produced by the dangerous SARS virus that has been spreading around the globe.

Monica Sarkar, an HP spokeswoman in the U.S., wouldn't comment on whether the two workers had recently been traveling in Asia, where SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome, is believed to have originated.

The two ill workers, whose sex and age haven't been released, were immediately hospitalized, while the other 197 workers in the Toronto facility were sent home and placed on in-home quarantines, as recommended by Canadian health authorities, Sarkar said.

The facility remains open with a reduced staff. It's being run by workers who weren't in the building when the two ill workers were present, and by employees from other offices, Sarkar said.

A third employee, in an HP facility in Vancouver, Wash., has also become ill in what is being called a suspected case of SARS, she said. The Vancouver location was evaluated by health officials there, but no workers were sent home.

Angela Rea, a spokeswoman for HP Canada, said health officials haven't given a date for when the Toronto in-home quarantines will end. The action will come, she said, "when authorities are satisfied that no one has continued to show any symptoms."

"Fortunately, none of them are showing any signs of being sick," Rea said. "And every day that goes by, it becomes less likely that they will become sick."

One of the two Toronto workers is listed as having a "probable" case of SARS, while the other worker is listed as a "possible" case of the illness, Rea said.

"We are very concerned for those two employees, and it has to be very difficult for anyone who has to be quarantined," she said.

SARS is a flulike illness that was first identified in humans in Vietnam in February, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has issued a series of alerts to track the illness. As of yesterday, 2,781 SARS cases had been reported in 17 countries on three continents, with 111 deaths.

Symptoms of SARS include a high fever and one or more respiratory problems, including cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, according to the WHO. Last month, an HP facility in Hong Kong was closed temporarily after a worker came down with a possible SARS infection, Sarkar said. The offices were sanitized before they were reopened, she said.

On March 28, HP notified all of its worldwide employees through its internal Web portal that the SARS outbreak had caused the company to issue an immediate travel ban to and from Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam until further notice, Sarkar said. All HP workers returning from any of those countries are being asked to work from home for 10 days after their return to ensure that they aren't infected, she said.

Workers with questions about SARS are being directed to Web sites for the Geneva-based WHO and the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, she said.

The disease apparently is being spread around the world in part by air travelers who have become infected in one country and then traveled elsewhere before realizing they are sick, according to the WHO. The illness has an incubation period of two to 10 days before symptoms appear.

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