Report: County ill-equipped for health crisis at SFO 

If a plane full of passengers suffering from cholera, plague, SARS or pandemic influenza touched down at San Francisco International Airport, the San Mateo County Health Department would be ill-equipped to deal with the crisis, a grand jury found.

A civil grand jury report, released Thursday, found that the department does not have enough on staff at SFO in case of a large-scale problem involving a disease, county health officials have not formally adopted plans for sheltering and monitoring a large number of infected passengers arriving at once, according to the report.

It recommended county supervisors gauge the staff, facility and equipment requirements to accommodate a health crisis at the airport, as well as explore ways to work with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and San Francisco.

Susan Dwyer, the officer in charge of SFO’s quarantine station, said 10 to 12 passengers last year flew into SFO suffering from infectious tuberculosis. In December, the CDC had to track down passengers who flew with a woman infected with TB. But despite the recent incidents, Dwyer said she was confident that if a great number of passengers fell ill, other agencies would move in to help.

While the airport is owned and operated by San Francisco, its location on the Peninsula means the county is responsible for public healthissues related to domestic flights, passengers in the terminal and international travelers who have left customs. San Francisco contracts with Catholic Healthcare West to run a medical center to treat injured or ill passengers, though the facility closes at 7 p.m., according to the grand jury report. Paramedics are available at the airport at all times.

The CDC employs four full-time staff members at SFO to inspect people, animals and animal products at the airport’s quarantine station.

The report provoked immediate concern among lawmakers.

"For me it was a little frightening to think the resources were not in place to accommodate a large-scale contaminated flight," Supervisor Jerry Hill said. "I think we need to look at this issue and outline the resources to deal with a large scale problem."

tbarak@examiner.com, svasilyuk@examiner.com

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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