In Toronto, SARS Forces Review of Plans

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While some 1,500 people here were reportedly still in quarantine in their homes late last week after being exposed to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), some credit union leaders are relaxing a bit over an illness that has had the city on edge.

During the height of the SARS news that included a travel advisory imposed by the World Health Organization (WHO), Toronto's credit unions reported they "revisited their business continuity plans'' to ensure uninterrupted service to their members should an outbreak occur in the work environment, while others reiterated the importance of frequent hand-washing. Some, however, didn't consider the risk high enough to warrant any proactive measures at all, according to a spokeswoman of Credit Union Central of Ontario.

"I'm sure it sounds really terrible,'' said Sherri Armstrong, communications manager of OCUC. "But people aren't walking around in masks.''

She said health officials have linked most cases to health care facilities where infected patients are being treated and quarantined and have taken strict precautions to prevent a public outbreak. Canada reported 213 SARS cases, 32 of which have resulted in death. So far, the city has avoided a second WHO travel advisory.

Armstrong said staff and members of Sunnybrook Credit Union, which has a branch inside the Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Services Centre, are among the people being screened for fever and required to wear masks and surgical gloves every time they enter the building. Officials at Sunnybrook CU could not be reached for comment, but Armstrong said she received a report that it was "business as usual" there.

Howard Bogach, CEO of the (C)$485-million Metro Credit Union, whose field of membership includes Toronto residents and workers-some from local hospitals-took major steps to ensure staff, members and the operation would not be adversely impacted should an outbreak occur there. That included imposing a ban on inter-office travel and staff meetings, and splitting the corporate office into three separate locations.

"When we heard of SARS, our first reaction was that we needed to do something,'' said Bogach. "We gave (staff in our branches the option) to wear surgical masks and gloves, but not many took us up on it.''

In addition, he said, flyers were posted at MCU's 10 branches and updated news releases appeared on the credit union's website to keep staff and members informed about the virus and MCU's efforts to protect them.

"Obviously, we think people are blowing this all out of proportion,'' he said. "But from a risk-management prospective, we've built it into our disaster plan. If we faced the risk of contamination, our corporate office could be shut down. So we separated it to three locations" in the event any one showed signs of infection. While the travel restriction was lifted last week, Bogach said he plans to keep a close watch on the news.

"Right now, it looks like it's restricted to the medical community,'' he said.

Still, he said, he expects attendance at this year's annual meeting to be low. The 54th Annual General Meeting, set for June 9, had only 550 commitments late last week. Bogach said traditionally 800 to 1,000 people attend.

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