A nursery worker at Providence Memorial Hospital in El Paso, Texas may have unintentionally exposed more than 700 babies to tuberculosis.
According to the Associated Press, the woman — whose identity is being withheld due to privacy laws — may have been infected with TB bacteria for up to a year before she was diagnosed in late August.
The El Paso Times reported that 706 babies are at risk of exposure plus 42 other hospital workers who came into contact with the infected employee.
Tuberculosis is caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacteria, which attacks the lungs, but can lay dormant in a patient’s system for extended periods of time before flaring up into an active case of the disease.
El Paso Department of Public Health spokeswoman Carrie Williams told the AP, “This is an incredibly large exposure investigation, and it involves infants, so it is particularly sensitive. Babies are more likely than older children and adults to develop life-threatening forms of TB.”
El Paso County Health Director Dr. Dr. Hector Ocaranza said that hospital workers have been tested and are waiting on their results. Letters have been sent to the families of all babies who may have been exposed, urging parents to bring their child in for screening, a service that the hospital is offering for free.
While a TB diagnosis amounted to a virtual death sentence for centuries, modern antibiotics can treat the disease. Ocaranza told the AP that the exposures did not amount to a serious health threat to the public.
Williams said that this is one of the largest public exposure investigations her department has ever handled, bigger than any a state health agency has faced before.
State and federal regulators announced that they are investigating the hospital to determine how the employee went undiagnosed for so long and have already found multiple violations which could jeopardize the hospital’s access to Medicare and Medicaid funds.
David Wright, deputy regional administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said that the possible exposures pose “an immediate jeopardy to patient safety.”
Jessica Martinez, 28, told the Times that her son Sebastian was born at Providence Memorial 11 months ago.
“I had a C-section and was at the hospital for three days. I also had visitors, who came with their children, while I was there,” Martinez said. “I made an appointment for my baby to get tested on Monday. My spouse and I are also getting tested.”
TB is spread when infected individuals cough or sneeze. A positive diagnosis for TB does not mean that a patient will get sick, especially with timely antibiotic intervention, usually with the drug Rocephin (Ceftriaxone).
The AP reported that the hospital has until Tuesday to submit a corrective plan. Wright said the he is unsure of how much government funding Providence Memorial receives, but for many hospitals it amounts to up to 60 percent of their operating budget.
Of the 500 hospitals in the state of Texas, he said, only 10 have been judged to pose a threat to patient safety.