The last thing a sick patient and their family worry about upon admission to a hospital – is that something dangerous in the hospital environment may further sicken or kill them.
But in 1846, after puzzling over the reason for high disease and death rates for childbearing women, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis forever changed hospital environments. Science had yet to discover germs. But the doctor ordered his staff to clean their hands and instruments, not just with soap. But with a chlorine solution.
Since then, hospitals have developed strict protocol to maintain safe premises. From monitoring and maintaining state-of-the-art air handling systems to prevent the transmission of airborne infectious organisms like Aspergillus. To the cleaning and sterilization of instruments, devices, and yes – hands of the medical staff to minimize organisms that spread on contact – like e. Coli and now Klebsiella Pneumoniae.
Despite the safety requirements for hospitals, sanitization standards are not always met, and outbreaks erupt. Like at Seattle Children’s Hospital for its two-decades-long span of Aspergillus fungal infections, which are alleged to have resulted from substandard HVAC systems and maintenance. And now Virginia Mason for its current Klebsiella pneumoniae infection. Which, according to experts that the Stritmatter Firm has consulted – have most likely resulted from inadequate hand washing and/or cleaning of equipment or devices.
It should be noted that this recent outbreak is not Virginia Mason’s first. Between 2012 and 2014, Virginia Mason experienced 39 infections and 18 deaths linked to “superbug” infections stemming from contaminated scopes. The scopes were virtually impossible to fully clean, and the manufacturer was later sued. But the State Department of Health ultimately entered a finding against the hospital for its failure to report the outbreak events to the health agency.
THERE ARE SEVERAL AREAS OF CONCERN REGARDING THE CURRENT KLEBSIELLA PNEUMONIAE OUTBREAK AT VIRGINIA MASON:
- The increase in cases was first noticed in October 2022 but not disclosed widely to the public until April 25, 2023. While the hospital notified the patients who were infected, it has not said that it warned any other patients or future patients. The DOH says that the outbreak is “ongoing.” From a patient advocacy perspective – being told of the risk of an infection may result in the patient deciding not to accept that risk, and to seek care at a different hospital or to wait for a procedure until the outbreak has ended.
- The incubation period can be months long. Although the DOH says that the number of new infections is decreasing, the monitoring process is rigorous. The hospital will have developed a notification and tracking system. Prophylaxis (preventative) treatment, usually in the form of diagnostic tests and medication, may be ordered. Because many people who are vulnerable to Klebsiella are already quite ill – their illnesses will be complicated and, in some cases, delayed treatment.
- The hospital says that it has implemented increased safety measures, however, the source of the infections is still unknown. Patients have been infected in different parts of the hospital, including regular rooms, the ICU, and at least one operating room. This means the hospital is likely focusing on bolstering its sanitization processes – from washing hands to sterilizing equipment. But the widespread nature of contamination complicates matters significantly.
- At least four patients to date have died. The hospital states that it is unknown if the reason was the bacteria or the original illness. This is a common talking point for a hospital and will later be used to defend against any lawsuit. It is important for any case involving death, that an autopsy be performed, and slides of infected tissue be retained.
- The hospital’s version of events will have been carefully laid out by its public relations team. It is important to obtain the public documents from the various departments of health whom the hospital must and is reporting to. These include the Seattle-King County Department of Health, the Washington State Department of Health, and the Center for Disease Control. Hospitals, however will attempt to keep many documents confidential. They will cite HIPAA for patient privacy. For example, Seattle Children’s Hospital, in the past, unsuccessfully sued King 5 News to prevent it from gaining access to all its filings with the DOH – claiming privilege.
The Stritmatter firm, along with the Layman Law Firm, is investigating this outbreak. For more information, please contact Karen Koehler or Andrew Ackley of Stritmatter Law Firm. Or John Layman of Layman Law Firm.
Photo credit: Biofilm containing bacteria Klebsiella, 3D illustration. iStock by Getty Images.