Fifth person dies after exposure to bacteria at York Hospital

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YORK, Pa. -- WellSpan York Hospital spokesperson Brett Marcy has confirmed that a fifth patient who had open heart surgery died after contracting a bacterial infection. The York Hospital patient was one of eight exposed to Nontuberculous Mycobacteria or NTM.

In October Wellspan notified 1,300 patients that they were at risk for the infection. This announcement means out of the eight people who contracted the infection, five are dead.

Wellspan officials said the patients at-risk had open heart surgery between October 2011 and July 2015. The infection grew out of bacteria exposure during their operations. A CDC investigation revealed that the bacteria came from heater-cooler devices used during that time.

Under scrutiny is the cleaning procedures of the device. York Hospital officials made claims that the company changed cleaning procedures over the years and they didn't know.

The company,  Sorin Group responded in a statement that the issue of a possible infection from the devices arose in early 2014, and improper disinfection and water maintenance may have been to blame. The company said they sent a letter to all of their customers in July of 2014, and again in June of 2015 to, "remind and reinforce proper instructions for use of the heater/cooler devices used during open-heart surgeries."

A hospital spokesman says they haven't been able to confirm the hospital received the letter. The spokesman says there was another warning that came from a notification system in August of 2014. "This communication was not fully shared within our organization in August 2014," wrote spokesman Brett Marcy in a statement. "We are investigating that communication breakdown to learn how and when it occurred and to ensure that it will not happen again anywhere in our organization."

York hospital replaced its heater-cooler devices with new equipment in late July 2015 and is advising current patients that there is no longer a risk of this bacterial exposure.

At this time it is unclear if the bacterial infection is directly linked to any of the deaths, but it is being considered a contributing factor.

Patients who had other, noninvasive heart procedures – such as stents, pacemakers, defibrillators and ablations – are not at risk, the hospital said.

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Another warning
A second area hospital is warning patients who had open-heart surgery about the risks of NTM. Around 2,300 patients over a four-year period at Penn State Hershey Medical Center were sent a notice about potential exposure to the dangerous bacteria.

The hospital is still investigating whether the operating room's heater/cooler devices, the same ones blamed for the infections at York Hospital, played a role in two deaths. The hospital replaced all of the heater/cooler devices in operating rooms over the weekend.

What is it?
According to federal health authorities, the bacterium – a nontuberculous mycobacterium, or NTM – is commonly found in nature, including soil, water, and even tap water. Although it typically is not harmful– in some rare cases – it can cause infections in patients who have had invasive healthcare procedures, especially in people with weakened immune systems.

This bacterium is not contagious, and the infection can usually be treated successfully once identified, according to hospital officials. However, because NTM is a slow-growing organism, it can take up to several months for it to develop into an infection, and years before the infection is correctly diagnosed unless patients and their clinicians are alert to the possibility of NTM infection.