The Associated Press

An airliner from Asia was briefly halted on a tarmac in San Jose, Calif., yesterday – the most dramatic sign yet that a mysterious illness blamed for more than 60 deaths worldwide is provoking worry in the United States.

As it turned out, none of the five passengers who caused concern among the flight crew had the disease.

Seventy cases of the illness, severe acute respiratory syndrome, called SARS, are suspected in the United States, but no one has died. Worldwide there are about 1,800 cases.

The California airport incident was the first time a plane has been stopped in the United States for fear of passengers spreading the disease. Some passengers and health officials called it an overreaction.

U.S. health officials are not considering quarantines so far because the disease is not spreading as rapidly as in Asia and the related outbreak in Toronto.

In Hong Kong, for example, some 240 residents of an apartment complex where SARS has spread were taken away to quarantine camps yesterday. But such measures don’t yet appear warranted in the United States, said Tommy Thompson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“We are in the business of protecting the public health of all citizens,” Thompson said yesterday in Atlanta. “If there is a virus that is explosive … and the only way to control it is by quarantine, we have to consider it. But we’re not there yet.”

Health officials say there’s no sign that SARS is spreading freely throughout any American community. The disease, which originated in Asia, seems to be confined mostly to international travelers, to health care workers who have taken care of SARS patients, and to those in close contact with SARS patients.

They also say the SARS germ, not yet firmly identified, appears to spread mostly from droplets spewed out through coughing or sneezing. But it’s possible it might also spread more broadly by airborne transmission, or by lurking on surfaces like doorknobs that other people later touch, the experts said.

Short of quarantine, authorities around the country have taken other steps.

At the airport in San Jose, Calif., an American Airlines flight from Tokyo was held on the tarmac after the captain reported five people on board appeared to have SARS-like symptoms. The disease causes a fever, sometimes with chills, headache and body aches, and can lead to a cough and shortness of breath.

A man sitting near three of the passengers said they showed no signs of illness.

“It’s an overreaction of some sort,” said Bob Beom of Grants Pass, Ore.

Federal health authorities are handing out warning cards to travelers who arrive in the United States from Asia, including those who may just passed through infected countries.

The cards advise the passengers arriving by plane or by ship to monitor their health for at least 10 days because of possible exposure to SARS. “If you become ill with fever accompanied by cough or difficulty in breathing, you should consult a physician,” the card advises.

Airports aren’t the only places where SARS has prompted precautionary steps. Syracuse University in New York state cut short its semester-long study-abroad program in Hong Kong and called 31 students home yesterday. The university also has decided to cancel two upcoming summer programs.

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