Seattle hospital mold deaths, Five more deaths have been linked to infections.
Seattle Children’s chief executive disclosed Monday that 14 patients have been sickened by Aspergillus mold since 2001 — six of whom died — blaming his hospital for failing to recognize a connection between the infections and the air-handling units serving its operating rooms.
Dr. Jeff Sperring, Children’s chief executive, said the hospital had believed earlier infections were isolated events but that recent cases prompted staff to take another look. “Looking back, we should have made the connection sooner,” he said at news conference. “Simply put, we failed.”
Yet more than a dozen years ago, Eugene and Clarissa Patnode drew a direct connection between the hospital’s air-filtration system and their 12-year-old daughter’s Aspergillus infection that left her permanently disabled.
“This makes me sick to my stomach,” John Layman, an attorney for the Patnodes, said Monday when contacted by The Seattle Times. “Our whole case was about the problems with the HVAC and it seems to have never been addressed.” The family didn’t respond to a message seeking comment.
Children’s denied the allegation aggressively at the time, and fought the family in court for nearly three years, court records show. A spokeswoman for the hospital did not respond to questions about the lawsuit, which was settled in 2008 for an undisclosed amount, on Monday and did not respond to other questions after the news conference.
Since May, Children’s, a celebrated institution whose doctors are sought after nationally, has publicly struggled to eradicate a strain of mold from its air systems, even as more mold-related infections have been confirmed. The experience of the Patnode family shows these struggles extend back much further than the hospital has previously acknowledged.
Aspergillus is a common mold, found outdoors and indoors, that people breathe in daily without getting sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with lung disease or weakened immune systems — and especially organ- or stem-cell-transplant patients — are at higher risk of developing aspergillosis, which can range from mild to serious, manifesting as an allergic reaction or as infections in the lungs and other organs.
Aspergillus infections that happen while a patient is in the hospital aren’t widely reported or identified across the country and little is known about Aspergillus in hospital HVAC systems, according to Jeff Duchin, public health officer of Public Health – Seattle & King County.
“I really think we’re in a situation here where Children’s has uncovered a very unusual problem that hasn’t been described before,” Duchin said. “We don’t have a real playbook for 1, 2, 3 here’s how you fix it.”
After seven infections and one death were connected to Aspergillus and problems with the air-handling system, Children’s said it looked retroactively at previous cases, and found seven more illnesses and five deaths between 2001 and 2014.
In recent years, Children’s has faced scrutiny from regulators over the steps it takes to guard against infections. In October 2017, inspectors with the state Department of Health cited the hospital for a serious violation over its failure to “implement and monitor an effective infection prevention program.”
In June 2018, Children’s closed two operating rooms and an equipment storage room for three days after Aspergillus was detected. The hospital believed the appearance of mold was due to small gaps in the walls of the operating rooms.
Hospital officials attributed another infestation, discovered in May of this year, to a gap in the array of small air filters in an air-handling unit. State inspectors visited Children’s on May 30, and cited the hospital for failing to adequately maintain its air-handling units and exhaust fans, among other shortcomings. The state signed off on Children’s plans to address the issues.
The hospital, which had closed all of its operating rooms at the time, reopened them July 4. Mark Del Beccaro, Children’s chief medical officer, said at the time the risk to patients “is incredibly low.”
Then, on Nov. 10, the hospital disclosed that it had again detected Aspergillus in three of its operating rooms. The hospital confirmed two days later that a surgical patient became ill and a second patient is being monitored for a possible infection from the mold. Children’s closed the remaining operating rooms on Nov. 13 to sanitize them and inspect the air-handling system that serves the rooms.