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SARS sends HP workers home in Canada

In what may be the first case of North American tech operations affected by the mysterious virus, Hewlett-Packard has sent about 200 workers home from a Toronto-area office.

In what may be the first case of North American tech operations being affected by the mysterious SARS virus, Hewlett-Packard has sent about 200 workers home from a Toronto-area office amid concerns that two employees may have the illness.

The computing giant also said Thursday that one of its employees in Vancouver, Wash., is also suspected of having severe acute respiratory syndrome.

Workers in the Toronto-area office, a technology services center, have been quarantined at home since Tuesday on the advice of local health authorities, said HP spokeswoman Monica Sarkar. She said one worker from the office is considered a "probable" case of SARS, while the other is a "suspected" case. Of the quarantined workers, 102 are HP employees and 95 are contract workers. HP has brought in workers from other sites to handle duties at the office, she said.

The Toronto Star reported Thursday that an HP employee triggered the home quarantine order by ignoring health authority warnings to stay home. Sarkar said she could not confirm that report.

The HP employee in Vancouver is home receiving treatment, and the company is working with health authorities regarding the case, Sarkar said.

SARS is a pneumonialike illness that appears to have emerged in China in November. As of Thursday, there were 2,781 cases worldwide reported to the World Health Organization, with 111 deaths. Nearly 2,300 of the cases were located in Hong Kong and other areas of China. According to the WHO, there have been 97 cases in Canada, with 10 deaths, and 154 cases in the United States, with zero deaths.

The disease has disrupted the technology industry in numerous ways, primarily in Asia. The Semiconductor Equipment and Materials International trade group postponed a trade show slated for early May in Singapore, chip giant Intel canceled two conferences in Asia, and hundreds of Motorola workers in Singapore were quarantined. Analysts also have warned that the disease could hinder supply lines in the electronics industry, which relies on Asia for much of its manufacturing.

HP already has been hit by the virus in Hong Kong. A possible SARS infection in one of its employees prompted the company to shut a 300-person office temporarily.

Sarkar said HP operations have not suffered because of the illness.

Sarkar didn't have information about whether the North American HP employees suspected to have SARS may have traveled to Asia. HP has banned all but critical employee travel to and from Hong Kong, the rest of China, Singapore, Taiwan and Vietnam. The company also is requesting that employees returning from those areas to other parts of the world work at home for 10 days.