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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 June, 2003, 09:41 GMT 10:41 UK
Canada's new Sars battle
By Jeff Gray
In Toronto

Health worker in mask in quarantine in Toronto, Canada
Health workers are on the front line against Sars in Canada

Inside the revolving doors of downtown Toronto's St Michael's Hospital, a phalanx of yellow-gowned staff, wearing masks, eye goggles and gloves, stands guard to greet visitors.

"It's kind of intimidating," acknowledges lobby assistant J P Cadeau, who offers visitors a squirt of anti-bacterial cleaner.

The resurgence in Toronto of Sars - Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome - has forced health officials to put hospitals back on high alert for the mysterious disease.

And that means at St Mike's that there are again just two entrances, one for the emergency room and one for everyone else.

And they are strictly controlled.

Battle resurfaces

Visiting hours are restricted to just three hours on weekdays, but longer on weekends.

There's no tourists. Who's going to come here?
Toronto taxi driver
Staff screen everyone as they arrive, and hand visitors a lengthy questionnaire to assess their Sars risk.

Signs in six languages warn visitors of the disease's symptoms.

After the discovery of a new cluster of cases in a hospital in the north end of the city, health officials who had declared the outbreak all but over in mid-May now say the battle against Sars is back on.

They have been criticised by some for letting their guard down after the World Health Organization lifted its travel advisory on Toronto on 29 April.

Now, almost 8,000 people are in isolation.

As of Friday there were 43 probable and 13 suspect cases of Sars in the city. Another 149 were under investigation.

In all, 30 people have died.

Tourism suffering

Dr James Young, the commissioner of public security for the province of Ontario, called this Toronto's "nervous weekend", as officials watch for signs that the disease is spreading.

Hotels say that vacancy rates remain high

The strains on the already cash-strapped publicly-funded health system are obvious - many of those either sick or in isolation are health-care workers.

However, efforts by politicians and business leaders to convince the rest of Canada and the world that Toronto is a safe place to visit continue.

The risk to travellers and the general public from Sars, officials maintain, is extremely low.

Despite this, the tourism industry here is still hurting.

Some downtown cab drivers say they are only half as busy as they usually are, and hotels say vacancy rates remain high.

Thousands have lost their jobs.

"There's no tourists. Who's going to come here?" says one driver in front of Union Station, near Toronto's signature CN Tower.

Concert hopes

One Toronto member of parliament, Dennis Mills, thinks he has a sure-fire plan to bring tourists - especially foreign ones - back to Canada's largest city.

He has been working feverishly to raise the $10m Canadian dollars ($7.3m) he needs to stage a rock festival featuring the Rolling Stones and a host of other international and Canadian acts on Toronto's waterfront in July.

Hundreds of thousands of people would attend, he says, and the event - with Toronto's skyline in the background - would be beamed via satellite free of charge around the world, sending the message that the city is safe.

It was unclear whether he would raise enough money, from businesses and from government, to pay for the concert.

Despite the news that Sars is still with us, and the troubled tourism industry, most in Toronto remain unconcerned about the disease.

You can spend hours on the streets and never see someone wearing a mask.

And a poll released over the weekend says 90% of Canadians are confident that their doctors and nurses will be able to contain the outbreak.

The BBC's Jon Brain
"Officials are having to explain why they're struggling to contain this second outbreak"

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