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Seattle Hospital Worker With Active TB May Have Exposed 140 Cancer Patients to the Disease

A health care worker at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance diagnosed with active tuberculosis (TB) last month may have exposed as many as 140 cancer patients to the disease, spokespersons for both organizations say.

In a statement, the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA) and the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC) confirm “that an oncology healthcare worker, who came into contact with cancer patients between February and July 2016, has tested positive for active tuberculosis (TB).”

“While we believe the risk of transmission to cancer patients is low, we are contacting approximately 140 cancer patients by letter who may have interacted with the health care worker to offer TB testing at no charge. SCCA is also contacting the patients’ health care providers to ensure they are aware of this situation,” the statement reads.

“After the health care worker proactively informed UWMC and SCCA of possible infection, both organizations contacted Public Health – Seattle & King County. The organizations are working in partnership and believe the risk of transmission to be low. The healthcare worker is on medical leave and responding well to treatment,” the statement continued, adding:

In addition to testing patients, staff members who may have worked in close proximity to the health care worker have been tested. All of the health care worker’s co-workers have tested negative for TB to date.

Among the healthcare worker’s close contacts, only one has come back positive for latent (not active) TB infection. This is a health care worker who does not provide direct patient care and is not at UWMC/SCCA. This individual had significant exposure to the person with TB disease. However, this individual also had other risk factors for TB, including spending time in a part of the world where TB is common. We are not certain that the positive test is related to exposure to this case.

Taking into account all the available clinical information and the contact evaluation, we believe the risk of TB spread from the health care worker to others, including patients, is low.

Officials at both the SCCA and UWMC  attempted to ease concerns about the seriousness of the problem.

Dr. Steven Pergram, the director of Infection Control at SCCA, acknowledged that for those 140 cancer patients who could have been exposed to active TB “this news is disconcerting.”

Pergram said the free TB diagnostic tests being offered to patients potentially exposed to active TB “are really being done as an abundance of caution,” Fox affiliate KCPQ reported.

“We think the risk is low in patients involved in this exposure,” he added.

Dr. Tim Dellit, associate dean for Clinical Affairs at the University of Washington, also tried to put the situation in the best possible light.

“The good thing about TB is that it’s very treatable and we expect this health care worker to do very well,” he said.

But Pergram also acknowledged that the cancer patients potentially exposed to active TB are “more likely to develop active (TB) disease . . .  in a shorter time frame than a normal person with an adequate immune system.”

According to KCPQ, “Health officials said the employee at first thought they only had a cough, but when the cough didn’t go away, doctors tested the worker and discovered they had TB.”

Neither the UWMC nor the SCCA would divulge whether the health care worker diagnosed with active TB was a doctor, nurse, or other type of health care worker.

Breitbart News requested a copy of the letter mailed out to patients by both organizations, but SCCA spokesperson Karen Brandvick-Baker tells Breitbart News “I’m unable to attach a copy the patient letter . . .  because we have not yet heard from all of the patients who we sent the letter. We are offering free testing to them and access to a nurse line and other information.”

As Breitbart News reportedly previously, 66 percent of all active TB cases diagnosed in 2015 in the United States were foreign-born, up from 22 percent in 1986.

Breitbart News also requested details on the immigration status of the health care worker diagnosed with active TB. Specifically, Breitbart News asked if the worker was a refugee, asylee, parolee, foreign-born legal permanent resident, or American-born citizen.

Brandvick-Baker, however, told Breitbart News that this information would not be forthcoming from either the SCCA or the UWMC:

Under HIPAA guidelines, we are not at liberty to divulge any additional information about the healthcare worker beyond what has already been communicated. We can however note that this individual acquired TB some time ago after a high risk exposure from a patient as a healthcare worker at another institution. This healthcare worker was screened after exposure and was found to have latent infection. They were given prophylactic medication to help prevent the development of active tuberculosis.

Neither the SCCA nor the UWMC TB control procedures detected that the health care worker had active TB.

“Healthcare workers at both organizations are screened for TB on a yearly basis as per national guidelines to assess for TB. The individual has undergone screening as mandated by national guidelines,” Brandvick-Baker told Breitbart News.

The health care worker was finally diagnosed with active TB when “the individual was evaluated by their outside primary provider for a cough,” Brandvick-Baker said:

This cough was thought to be related to another non-infectious health condition. Once this cough did not improve with standard therapy, additional diagnoses were considered including TB. Common TB symptoms such as fever, phlegm, weight loss or fever were not present. Once TB was considered by the primary care giver, the employee notified the institution, and the health worker was placed on medical leave. The healthcare worker was confirmed to have active TB two weeks later.

This is the second time in recent months that health care workers in an American hospital have been diagnosed with active TB.

In June, Breitbart News reported that “[t]wo workers at Mercy Hospital and Abbot Northwestern Hospital, both located in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area and owned by Allina Health, have been diagnosed with active tuberculosis (TB).”

Allina Health released a statement at the time that said “In late May, Allina Health began notifying 141 people who had been patients at either Abbott Northwestern Hospital or Mercy Hospital earlier this year that they may have been exposed to tuberculosis (TB). At each location, we learned that a worker who helped deliver care had TB.”

As Breitbart News reported at the time, Allina Health was unable to confirm if the two cases of active TB were diagnosed by the hospital’s TB control procedures:

The Minnesota Department of Health has established tuberculosis infection control procedures for all health care facilities that operate in the state.

Allina Health confirmed these procedures were in place at both Mercy Hospital, located in suburban Coon Rapids, the largest city in Anoka County, and Abbott Northwestern Hospital, located in Minneapolis, the county seat of Hennepin County.

When asked if those procedures were properly followed, Allina Health’s Kanihan tells Breitbart News “We are evaluating that.”

As was the case in Seattle, Allina Health also refused to disclose the immigration status of the two health care workers diagnosed with active TB in its Minnesota hospitals.

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