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State Fines Sutter/Alta Bates Over $84,000 for Willful Failure to Protect Staff, Police Officer

, 6/29/12

from Disabling Disease

California’s Department of Occupational Health and Safety has fined Sutter corporation’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center for willful misconduct in dangerously exposing staff and police officers to a serious illness that resulted in permanent disabilities for a respiratory tech and an Oakland police officer.

The fine of $84,450 follows a settlement agreement between the state and ABSMC on a penalty assessed at $164,350, mostly for the Oakland hospital’s failure to report a deadly case of meningococcal disease to local public officials, and failure to notify employees exposed to the contagion “in a timely manner.”

“Alta Bates Summit needs to account for their failure in taking appropriate steps to protect me, my family, the police officer, and my co workers,” said Suheil (Sam) Saliba, the respiratory tech exposed. “This is a small triumph for the huge price I paid in becoming permanently disabled.

“This reckless behavior by Alta Bates Summit is just the latest illustration of a corporation that routinely ignores even simple protections for patients, its caregivers, and public safety personnel,” said Zenei Cortez, RN, co-president of California Nurses Association/National Nurses United. “It is a reminder of what has long alarmed nurses about Sutter, its lax regard for public safety and its own employees.”

“Their negligent behavior led to the contagion of a hospital employee and a police officer who subsequently have endured permanent disabilities that could have been prevented by a simple, single dose of common oral antibiotic had they been notified in time of their exposure. That is deplorable,” said Cortez.

The incident prompting the fine began on Dec. 3, 2009 when an extremely ill patient was brought to the ABSMC hospital in Oakland after being found unconscious at home in bed. Police had broken into his apartment at his family’s request, found him and called for paramedics. In the ER, the patient was intubated – the insertion of a breathing tube – by a respiratory tech.  

At admission, bacterial meningitis was suspected, and a test was done on spinal fluid which provided indications of bacterial meningitis.  Bacterial meningitis is a form of meningococcal disease, a contagious disease that is very serious and often fatal with a very short incubation period of typically less than four days.

By the morning of December 4, hospital officials received reports from the lab tests that strongly suggested meningococcal disease. Yet, hospital officials failed to notify Alameda County Health Department officials until the afternoon of December 7 – ignoring the communicable disease reporting law, which requires immediate reporting of both “suspect” and “confirmed” cases of meningococcal disease and requires reporting within 24 hours of bacterial meningitis.

“Alta Bates Summit should have immediately not only notified all the employees and other personnel who had contact with this patient, but also immediately provided the oral medication as a precaution if appropriate after having them medically evaluated,” said Cortez.

Even after receiving positive confirming results of the suspected diagnosis, ABSMC failed to notify its own employees who were working in the ER on December 3 and failed to contact the Oakland Fire Department and the Oakland Police Department to advise that the fire fighters and police officers who were the first responders had been exposed. 

Notably, the patient’s clothing and bedspread (in which he was wrapped for quick transport) were covered in highly contagious bodily fluids and were necessarily handled by the first responders and ER personnel.

Though hospital officials told DOSH that employees took appropriate cautions, such as wearing masks, the evidence told a different story – that the masks were not readily available and that the cart where protective equipment is supposed to be stored was routinely under stocked and shoved out of the way in inconvenient places.  

Within days, a police officer and the respiratory tech became seriously ill. Both assumed they had the flu and went untreated until family members prodded them to get help.

On Dec.10, 2009, Saliba went by ambulance to a hospital where meningococcal disease was immediately suspected and he remained hospitalized for 11 days.  He has suffered permanent hearing loss, has undergone one knee surgery and requires another due to joint damage, has memory loss and cognitive impairment.   Saliba is no longer able to perform the functions of his position and can’t work full time.   

The Oakland police officer also became very ill. He didn’t find out about his exposure to meningococcal disease until December 9 after a co-worker learned about it after the County was contacted by the Alameda Health Department. 

ABSMC never notified the Oakland Fire Department or the Oakland Police Department about the exposure, even though hospital records showed that OFD and OPD personnel were present at the patient’s home immediately prior to his admission. 

The infected officer also suffered permanently disabling effects, and is now on disability retirement.   

Attorneys for the police officer have filed a civil suit against both Sutter Health and Alta Bates Summit in Alameda County Superior Court. The case is pending.

In addition to the fine for failure to notify employees and the public health department in a timely manner, DOSH penalties against Sutter Alta Bates – and the final settlement fine – include violations for failure to provide medical treatment to employees exposed to bacterial meningitis, failure to properly fit ER employees with respirators, and an incomplete Aerosol Transmissible Disease (ATD) program.

“We would hope that Sutter and Alta Bates Summit would learn a lesson and respond more urgently to infectious diseases, provide adequate safety training, and treat their employees and public safety personnel with more caution and respect,” said Cortez.

“But Sutter’s record, which includes closing patient services they think don’t generate enough profits regardless of patient need, and misleading the public on a wide array of matters, do not provide us with much confidence that their arrogant behavior is going to change,” Cortez said.

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