Brian Messenger, Staff Writer
---- — New Hampshire health officials suspect an outbreak of Hepatitis C at Exeter Hospital was caused by an employee who stole and injected hospital drugs and used contaminated needles on patients in the hospital’s Cardiac Catheterization Lab and recovery room.
So far 30 patients have tested positive for the same strain Hepatitis C — a blood-borne viral infection that causes liver damage and potentially chronic health problems.
Many local hospitals said the outbreak at Exeter unfairly casts their profession in a negative light, said Cristina Galli, spokeswoman for Parkland Medical Center in Derry, N.H.
“This is a really isolated and rare incident,” said Galli. “We’re extremely cautious when it comes to patient safety.”
But several officials interviewed last week admit what occurred at Exeter Hospital could happen anywhere, given that it appears the outbreak was caused by an individual employee.
“I do think this is something that could happen in most hospitals,” said Delia O’Connor, president and chief executive officer of Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport. “Unfortunately, there are stories like this around the country. ... Nothing is a sure thing when it comes - apparently — to addiction and the behaviors it stimulates.”
The Exeter outbreak is reportedly being investigated by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office and U.S. Attorney’s office.
First reported in June, the hospital had found four patients with the virus. The number climbed to 30 last week with 45 more patients to be tested.
With strict protocols in place for storing and administering medicine and sanitizing medical instruments and equipment, area hospital officials said their patients’ safety is already a priority.
“There are intensive procedures for infection control,” said Galli at Parkland. “We haven’t made any changes because we feel what we have in place is adequate.”
All 1,000 employees at Anna Jaques Hospital must pass a drug test before they are hired. But after the Exeter outbreak, O’Connor said the hospital board is considering continued employee drug testing.
O’Connor said the hospital also counts on employees to report potential problems with their coworkers.
“We have very vigilant employees,” said O’Connor. “They are very attuned to picking up if their coworkers have issues ... Employees are empowered to protect patients and go out of the chain of command.”
In Massachusetts, the state Department of Public Heath requires that communicable diseases be reported to the department within 24 hours of diagnosis.
To prevent the transmission of blood-borne pathogens, health care workers must adhere to standard precautions and fundamental infection-control principles � including safe injection practices and appropriate aseptic techniques — according to information provided by the department.
At Lawrence General Hospital, Vice President Theresa Sievers said employees follow all “safe injection practices” put forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That includes using needles and syringes one time only and using single-dose vials. CDC guidelines are also followed for cleaning, disinfecting and sterilizing medical instruments, patient care equipment and employees’ personal protective equipment, Sievers said.
Mary O’Neil, regional spokeswoman for Steward Health Care System — which operates Holy Family Hospital in Methuen and Merrimack Valley Hospital in Haverhill — said “all of our infection control policies follow CDC guidelines. We do this for the safety of our patients and our staff.”
At Parkland Medical Center, Galli said workers follow the same safety guidelines established by hospitals across the country. She said protocols and procedures are monitored regularly to ensure patient safety.
Among the checks in place are regular audits by the New Hampshire Board of Pharmacy and The Joint Commission, an independent nonprofit organization that accredits and certifies health care organizations, s
Galli said Parkland also regularly conducts “rigorous” internal audits.
The investigation at Exeter Hospital went public in late May when it was announced that four patients had been diagnosed with Hepatitis C. Now, in addition to the 30 patients and one hospital employee found to be infected, 12 people have been diagnosed with a strain of Hepatitis C that does not match the outbreak strain.
Exeter Hospital “is a 100-bed tax exempt, community-based hospital and one of five affiliates of Exeter Health Reso
urces,” according to the hospital’s website. The hospital employs approximately 1,500 people and accepts around 35,000 emergency room visits and more than 5,000 admissions each year, according to the site.
So far, state health officials have tested more than 1,000 blood samples from patients treated at Exeter Hospital’s Cardiac Catheterization Lab and recovery room between Oct. 1, 2010, and May 25, 2012.
Exeter Health Resources Spokesman Ryan Lawrence said the testing is nearing completion, though approximately 45 patients who received treatment within that time frame have yet to come forward.
“We remain focused on supporting identified patients and their families, along with all patients who have required testing,” said Lawrence. “Exeter Hospital is continuing to do everything it can to help support the identified patients and a few weeks ago established a dedicated clinical response team to care for these patients.”
On Friday, the Associated Press reported a number of lawsuits have been filed against Exeter Hospital. At the start of July, almost 60 former patients of the hospital had filed suit. Of those, at least 47 patients have signed on to a class-action lawsuit, as well as 12 others who have each filed individual lawsuits.
Lawrence declined to comment on pending litigation.
When asked whether a worker’s misuse of drugs led to the outbreak, Lawrence said the employee has been let go.
“The investigation into the potential cause is still ongoing,” said Lawrence. “The individual is no longer employed at
Exeter Hospital. The individual had been previously placed on an administrative suspension since the middle of May. We cannot provide any further comment due to the ongoing investig
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