Taking a tougher line on containing SARS, the new chief of the Center for Disease Control pledged yesterday to monitor control measures more closely and warned hospital bosses they will be punished if they are slow in reporting suspected cases.
Cover-ups and misdiagnoses of SARS patients at some hospitals are believed to have aggravated the spread of the disease in the country.
"Failing to report the cases has been a problem in the past," said Su Yi-jen (蘇益仁), who took over last week as head of the Center for Disease Control.
"It may be because some medical workers were inexperienced or they tried to hide it for certain reasons," Su said.
More than 90 percent of the nation's SARS cases can be traced to transmission in hospitals.
Hospital bosses have been ordered to report any patients with fevers or other SARS-like symptoms within one day of the cases being detected or face fines of up to NT$1.5 million, Su said.
A doctor failing to report cases could be suspended from practicing, while medical workers convicted of any cover-ups could be sentenced to seven years in jail.
Su said health authorities will send teams of investigators to monitor SARS control efforts in the hospitals.
"We want to be one step ahead of the infections," Su said. "As soon as there are any suspected cases, we will isolate and quarantine the surrounding areas."
He did not specify how much of a hospital would be quarantined in such cases.
Doctors have also been told to be on the alert for SARS patients who do not develop the more typical symptoms of high fever and a cough. Elderly people or those with other chronic illnesses may have weaker immune systems that cannot fight the virus very well, so the disease is harder to detect at first, Su said.
Su predicted the more intense fight against the disease might allow Taiwan to bring the disease under control within a month.
Su said there are no immediate plans to punish patients who hid their illness and infected medical staff, noting that such a threat might drive people away from seeking proper treatment.
The Taipei Municipal Hoping Hospital was sealed off on April 24 after medical workers allegedly misdiagnosed SARS patients and then covered it up to avoid scaring away other patients.
Patients who had earlier visited Hoping Hospital sought treatments elsewhere without disclosing it to medical doctors tending to them, leading to outbreaks at five other hospitals, four in Taipei and one in Kaohsiung.
Officials said doctors and nurses had accused hospital bosses of mistakenly believing they could control the infections, so they hid information about the outbreak for fear it might lead to closures of their facilities.
Su said large-scale infections at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Kaohsiung have been largely brought under control, after more than 100 medical workers were placed in quarantine.
But about 120 nurses at the hospital have quit, saying they fear they are not adequately protected against infections.
A 28-year-old doctor at the hospital died last week and more than 15 medical workers were infected.
But Su said Chang Gung Hospital still has some 1,400 medical staff on duty and the hospital has called in support personnel from its affiliated facilities in the north.