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UPMC contacting 4,700 people possibly exposed to tuberculosis by infected ER employee

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Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
UPMC Presbyterian in Oakland

An employee of UPMC Presbyterian’s emergency department might have exposed about 4,700 patients and staff to tuberculosis, UPMC said Friday.

The health system said it is working with the Allegheny County Health Department to track down, notify and test anyone who might have been exposed to the infectious disease.

Laboratory testing confirmed that the UPMC Presbyterian employee had contracted tuberculosis, according to a statement from Tami Minnier, UPMC’s chief quality officer.

The hospital estimated about 4,700 people, mostly emergency patients, came in contact with the employee during the “exposure window” of Oct. 28 through Feb. 28 — a window officials based on when the employee was diagnosed and the widest possible range that the person could have been contagious, UPMC spokeswoman Allison Hydzik said.

In addition to working in the emergency department, the employee had been a patient at an opthalmology clinic at the Oakland hospital and at a physician’s office at Magee-Womens Hospital.

The employee has been on leave to recover at home. The person followed UPMC’s policies and did not contract the disease at work, Hydzik said.

“While the likelihood of contracting TB from that employee is thought to be low, out of an abundance of caution we are collaborating with the Allegheny County Health Department and taking careful steps to both notify and test patients and staff who may have been exposed to this employee at no charge,” Minnier said.

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Pittsburgh-based scholar with the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said health professionals often cast a very wide net out of an abundance of caution in public exposures such as this one or cases in schools. Most people who came in contact with the infected patient won’t contract the bacteria or develop symptoms, he said.

“You’re going to see people take the most cautious approach, go above and beyond to reach as many people as possible,” Adalja said. “I expect it’s unlikely you’ll see a large number of people contracting the disease.”

Hydzik said all the people the hospital identified already received letters notifying them of what happened.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial disease primarily infecting the lungs and it can be spread by coughing or sneezing, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . An active infection can cause chest pain and persistent coughing that results in an infected person coughing up blood. Bacteria are present in a latent infection, but a healthy immune system can prevent them from growing and causing symptoms.

Adalja said many factors can affect whether someone who is actively infected can spread the tuberculosis bacteria to another person, such as how advanced the infection is or how much bacteria is in the blood or mucus being coughed up.

Of the people who catch the bacteria, only 1 in 10 will immediately start developing an active infection; the rest will get a latent infection that, in the vast majority, will not advance into an active infection unless something weakens the patient’s immune system, he said.

A monthslong course of antibiotics can reduce the likelihood of a latent infection becoming an active one, Adalja said. People who were exposed will likely get a skin test for the presence of the bacteria, then a second follow-up test to ensure an infection did not develop.

Health Department Director Dr. Karen Hacker said the department had tracked about 17 cases of tuberculosis in Allegheny County in 2017.

Anyone with concerns that they could have been exposed can call a 24-hour UPMC hotline at 844-516-1177.

Matthew Santoni is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-836-6660, [email protected] or via Twitter @msantoni.

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