Toronto CU Finds Itself On SARS Frontline, Steps Up To The Plate When Others Ran

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When others refused to enter the hospital treating patients with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), one credit union not only continued to operate inside the hospital but even brought in additional staff to help out and offered to refill the ATM when the local bank that usually handles replenishment refused to come near.

The $5.5-million Sunnybrook CU, with its only branch located inside Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Services Centre, became the financial institution of choice for employees, patients and business owners who occupy or visit the medical facility where SARS patients are being treated.

Since SARS was first identified last November in Southern China, there have been 8,403 cases and 775 deaths reported in 29 countries. In Canada, there have been 213 probable SARS cases and 33 deaths. The most recent deaths occurred just weeks ago in Toronto where an elderly man and woman succumbed to SARS.

Three days before their deaths, Canadian health officials said they would expand a screening program designed to detect whether arriving international airline passengers were suffering from the syndrome. The program, which had included Toronto and Vancouver airports, now includes Ottawa, Calgary and Montreal's Mirabel and Dorval airports.

So far, Toronto has avoided a second World Health Organization travel advisory despite the renewed outbreak weeks after officials thought they had the illness under control. WHO officials reportedly said they felt it was under control with no spread into the general population.

The reason, in part, is that area hospitals that treated SARS patients have been diligent in their efforts to contain it.

Sunnybrook CU CEO Jerry Andrijiw said her staff is among the 10,000 employees at Sunnybrook and Women's College Health Services Centre who have their temperatures taken and their hands sprayed with disinfectant before they enter the building every day. They must also sign forms that state they have not been to any other hospitals and haven't come in contact with SARS patients, then put on masks as they make their way to their work destination.

Andrijiw said that for two months during the initial outbreak, health officials required the staff to wear the protective gear all day. "Now, they don't have to keep the masks on once they enter our office.''

Proudly, Andrijiw said, not one staff person has balked at the responsibility, despite the possible dangers and media hype.

"I think my staff has taken this very well,'' she said. "Not a single person took a sick day or any time off. They figured they just had to help the members.''

Some CUs in the Toronto area rearranged 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. Still more were frequently monitoring the news to decide when and if they needed to take action, according to a spokeswoman of CUCentral of Ontario.

Andrijiw said the workload At Sunnybrook CU increased because outside delivery personnel-afraid of contracting Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome- refused to enter the hospital.

"Our suppliers refused to cooperate, so we had to put our disaster recovery plan in place to pick up supplies and cash,'' Andrijiw said.

She said her staff also became responsible for filling the ATMs normally serviced by a local bank, whose staff refused to do it.

And, with hospital personnel under strict orders not to leave the building during hospital hours, the CU was asked to respond to their financial needs as well.

With only three full-time employees, Andrijiw said the work was a bit too much, so she found four college students "willing to come through the door'' to work part time.

While Andrijiw said she didn't want to sound as if she were trivializing the tragedy of SARS, it has helped her credit union show its true colors and raise more awareness about the people-helping-people industry.

"Sure, we've gained members,'' she said. "But, more important is the awareness and the respect that we gained for what we are doing. It feels really good.''

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