President Bush has added severe acute respiratory illness to a list of communicable diseases that people can be involuntarily quarantined for. The president signed an executive order adding SARS to the list that includes cholera, diphtheria, smallpox and other diseases.
It's the first time a new disease has been added to the list in two decades.
"If spread in the population," the order says, SARS "would have severe public health consequences."
SARS, whose symptoms include fever, aches, cough and shortness of breath, has killed at least 85 people in Asia and Canada and sickened at least 2,300 in more than a dozen nations as infected travelers spread the disease. In the United States, 100 cases in 27 states have been reported.
About 4 percent of the victims have died from the disease, though none of them in this country. There's no cure yet, but most sufferers are recovering with timely hospital care.
As CBS News Correspondent Barry Petersen reports, the worst outbreak of SARS has been in Asia, where it started. Hong Kong is a city of masked faces and frightened eyes. People are so afraid of infection they no longer even shake hands with friends. Schools are shut down, restaurants empty, flights cancelled daily and tours are down 90 percent.
"Don't get to close to people. Keep yourself three to six feet distance," advises Wendy Qwok, a public relations exec.
One of the scariest things for people here is how long it took China to admit there was an outbreak, reports Petersen. China apologized Friday for not doing a better job of informing people about SARS. Meanwhile, an international medical team went to the city where it believed the mystery illness may have first broken out.
The admission, extraordinary for a government that rarely acknowledges fault, came after escalating criticism abroad — and one day after the health minister explicitly said China had followed its own rules in dealing with the problem.
"Today, we apologize to everyone," said Li Liming, director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control.
"Our medical departments and our mass media suffered poor coordination. We weren't able to muster our forces in helping to provide everyone with scientific publicity and allowing the masses to get hold of this sort of knowledge."
Earlier, Doctor Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said scientists may be closing in on a cause for the flu-like illness.
He said experts are pretty sure SARS could be caused by a previously unknown form of the coronavirus, which is known to cause some common colds.
The president's action came on a day that saw health authorities across the United States report a total of eight suspected new cases of a deadly flu-like illness which first appeared in Asia.
In Washington, the three suspected new cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, involved people who fell ill last month after returning from Asia, Dr. Maxine Hayes, a state health officer, said Thursday. The three were no longer sick and were not infectious.
California reported four suspected new cases, bringing the total number of people in the state possibly suffering from SARS to 35. The new cases in California, which is home to the United States' largest Asian population, included a 7-year-old Hong Kong resident visiting the United States and two people who recently traveled to mainland China.
At Los Angeles International Airport on Thursday, a Southwest Airlines jetliner was isolated on the tarmac at for more than an hour after a passenger informed a flight attendant he might be infected with SARS.
The man's claim was later determined to be a hoax.
In Florida, a 70-year-old woman was hospitalized after showing symptoms of SARS following a trip to Asia, Florida state epidemiologist Dr. Steven Wiersma said.
The woman was not in intensive care and the sickness did not appear to be life threatening at this point, Wiersma said.
Two other Florida residents, a 21-year-old woman and a 36-year-old man, were identified Wednesday as suspected SARS cases. They were not hospitalized but were asked to stay home to avoid spreading the illness, Wiersma said.
In Foshan, a city in China's southern Guangdong province, World Health Organization investigators worked with local authorities to isolate data from a few people believed key to the emergence of SARS.
At the top of their list: a Foshan man believed by investigators to be the first known person infected. The man, who was not identified, is suspected of having passed the virus to four people — but, mysteriously, not to his four children. He survived and was released from the hospital in January.
"It's going to be a tricky task to find out what went on," said Powell, a spokesman for the WHO team, who said investigators had not met the man. "It's going to be a long job, a long epidemiological study to try to find out exactly how the infection was transmitted."
Singapore's Health Ministry reported the island nation's sixth SARS death — a woman who died Friday. Health Minister Lim Hng Kiang said all visitors arriving in Singapore beginning Monday must sign a declaration saying they do not have SARS.
Anyone caught lying will be fined $2,800.
No cure for SARS has been found, although health officials say most sufferers recover with timely hospital care. Symptoms include high fever, aches, dry cough and shortness of breath.