Inside Virginia Mason's bacterial outbreak probe

Health officials have yet to identify the source of a Klebsiella pneumoniae outbreak tied to 31 illnesses and seven patient deaths at Seattle-based Virginia Mason Medical Center, NPR affiliate KUOW reported May 5.

Hospital leaders are working with the CDC and local public health officials to investigate the outbreak, which started in October. Leaders' first step was to review affected patients' medical records for any potential patterns in terms of where they spent time in the hospital. 

The analysis did not reveal any commonalities, so health officials turned to environmental sampling next. Swabs were taken from numerous hospital surfaces in patient rooms and common areas, including sinks and counters, but officials did not find any bacteria matching samples from infected patients. 

"Klebsiella pneumoniae, specifically, is a common bug that can actually be found in the human gut, so when an individual uses the bathroom, washes their hands, the bacteria can also colonize those surfaces," Eric Chow, MD, chief of communicable disease epidemiology and immunization for Seattle and King County's public health department, told KUOW.

After this sampling failed to provide a match, Dr. Chow said his team shifted focus to the hospital's general infection control processes. Hand sanitizer was placed outside patient rooms and items were moved away from sinks — a common breeding ground for the bacteria. Virginia Mason has also ramped up surface cleaning processes and replaced parts of the facility's plumbing that could harbor high levels of bacteria. 

The next step of outbreak response will involve implementing even more rigorous infection control processes and retesting hospital surfaces to try to pinpoint the source of the bacteria, Dr. Chow said. 

"While the risk of transmission is extremely low for patients, we continue to take proactive steps to avoid additional transmission," Virginia Mason said in an April 28 statement.

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