How hepatitis C spread through New Hampshire

Posted June 13, 2012, at 8 a.m.
Exeter Hospital first learned  May 10, that a former patient had tested positive for hepatitis C.
Exeter Hospital
Exeter Hospital first learned May 10, that a former patient had tested positive for hepatitis C.

EXETER, N.H. — It was on Thursday, May 10, that Exeter Hospital first learned a former patient had tested positive for hepatitis C.

The next day, the hospital discovered a second patient was carrying the virus.

Then on Monday, May 14, word came that a third person was infected, and hospital administrators decided it was time to launch a formal investigation into the circumstances.

That was the sequence of events laid out this week by Mark Whitney, Exeter Hospital’s vice president of community relations.

Whitney was asked to describe how an outbreak of hepatitis C linked with the hospital’s cardiac catheterization laboratory was first detected.

The number of people linked with the outbreak stood at 14 this week. The only known connection between the people carrying the virus is the hospital’s cardiac catheterization laboratory and recovery area.

Whitney said the first three hepatitis C infections related to the outbreak were discovered by physicians working in outpatient clinics affiliated with the hospital.

The patients developed symptoms after being treated at the hospital and released, Whitney said. The hospital was notified by telephone call on Thursday, May 10, and Friday, May 11, of the first pair of patients diagnosed with the virus, he said.

By Tuesday, May 15, the hospital had notified the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services about the potential viral outbreak, Whitney said.

The hospital had also learned that a fourth person — a hospital employee — was carrying hepatitis C.

The hospital employee has not been identified as the cause of the outbreak, although investigators haven’t ruled out that possibility.

On Thursday, May 17, state health officials began working on-site at the hospital, and helping to analyze patient records to find patterns in their treatment.

The hospital did not immediately identify the cardiac catheterization laboratory as the common connection between the patients, Whitney said, explaining that the process involved rigorous investigation both by the hospital and state health officials.

It was on May 25, 11 days after the formal investigation began, that the hospital made the decision to voluntarily suspend operations at the cardiac catheterization laboratory.

Whitney said the decision to suspend operations was made as soon as it “became clear there might be something that raised concerns.”

“Once we started to sense that there was some kind of connection to an individual area within Exeter Hospital, that’s when we made the decision, which was ultimately on that Friday, that we would suspend operations at that unit,” he said.

Asked why it took more than a week to identify the laboratory as the common connection between the three patients, Whitney said that until that date, there was “not necessarily certainty” the lab was involved.

The hospital publicly announced the viral outbreak on Thursday, May 31. Since then, it has contacted all 879 patients who were treated at the lab since April 2011 to ask them to get tested for the liver disease.

A patient treated at the hospital in September remains the earliest known victim.

As of Monday, 700 patients had either been screened or scheduled an appointment for the test, according to information provided by the hospital.

NH Public Health Director Dr. Jose Montero said state health officials are planning to make a public announcement about a new batch of lab results today.

A spokesman from the Division of Public Health Services could not be reached for comment on the investigation Tuesday.

(c)2012 the Foster’s Daily Democrat (Dover, N.H.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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