AZ, CO patients may be at risk of HIV, Hep B & C

Posted at 1:50 PM, Feb 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-15 10:15:54-05

Nearly 3,000 surgical patients treated at a hospital in Colorado may have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C, according to Colorado hospital and health officials, and now officials in Arizona are offering free testing as well after discovering the same individual worked at two different Valley hospitals.

Englewood police in Colorado and hospital administrators are investigating a possible drug diversion case, in which pain medication intended for patients was stolen. A former surgical technician, who police in Denver have identified as Rocky Allen, is the employee who put patients at risk, Mark Salley with the health department told Denver7, ABC15's sister station in Colorado.

ABC15 learned two Valley hospitals are also offering free hepatitis and HIV testing to patients after discovering the same surgical technician was an employee at John C. Lincoln Medical Center for less than two months, as well as with Banner Thunderbird Medical Center for an unspecified time. 

Hospital officials at John C. Lincoln say there are no indications that patients were harmed. However, patients who had a surgery involving Allen at John C. Lincoln will be able to get tested for hepatitis B and C as well as for HIV. They have identified 97 patients so far, but say "the likelihood that patients were exposed is extremely low" and the "situation at our facility is different than the one in Colorado." Allen's employment with John C. Lincoln came to an end after the man tested positive for the use of a controlled substance, Jeff Holeman, with the hospital, said. 

Jeff Nelson, with Banner Thunderbird Medical Center, confirmed that Allen, known to them as Robert "Rocky" Allen, was employed at Banner Thunderbird. The hospital is "moving toward establishing a free testing program as early as possible for those surgical patients who were treated" at the time Allen worked with them to address concerns that "may cause anxiety among some of our former patients." 

A statement from John C. Lincoln Medical Center and Banner Thunderbird Medical Center is available in full at the end of this story. 

Englewood police have identified the surgical tech as Allen, 28. Sgt. Brian Cousineau says an arrest has not been made and the investigation is ongoing.

Swedish Medical Center patients will be notified by the hospital vialetter if they require a blood test. Swedish says only people who had surgery between Aug. 17, 2015 and Jan. 22, 2016 are potentially at risk. At this time, there is no evidence to suggest exposure. The hospital is offering free testing and staff is "taking a position of extreme caution."

The hospital notified police and the health department on Jan. 23.

According to state regulatory records, Allen's surgical technologist license was suspended Jan. 29 after authorities found evidence he was stealing a powerful narcotic from the surgery room and using it.

On Jan. 22 during the beginning stages of a surgical procedure, Allen allegedly removed a labeled fentanyl syringe from the anesthesia work space and replaced it with another labeled syringe. Allen later tested positive for fentanyl and marijuana, according to the license suspension by the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies.

"Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opiate analgesic similar to but more potent than morphine," according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse website. "It is typically used to treat patients with severe pain, or to manage pain after surgery."

The suspension order found evidence that "the public health, safety, or welfare imperatively requires emergency action and/or" that Allen "is guilty of deliberate and willful violation [state law] relating to the practice of a surgical technologist." 

Allen wrote on his Facebook page that he would begin working at Swedish Medical Center on Aug. 17, 2015 -- the date for the start of the potential contamination period.

"So it's official, I start my new job at Swedish Medical on Monday! Super excited to be back in the OR [operating room] and fixing some people!" Allen wrote on Facebook.

The hospital issued a statement Wednesday, saying: "We are working closely with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on an investigation of the actions of that former employee who may have put some of our surgery patients at risk for exposure to HIV, hepatitis B, or hepatitis C, viruses that can potentially cause long-term health concerns."

“We deeply regret that one of our former employees may have put patients at risk, and are sorry for any uncertainty or anxiety this may cause,” said Richard A. Hammett, President and CEO, Swedish Medical Center. “Please know our first concern is the health, care, safety and privacy of our patients and we are working diligently to look after the wellbeing of the patients who may have been affected by the wrongful actions of this individual."

Kristina Senecaut's son had jaw reconstruction surgery last summer. His procedure happened just outside the time frame that Allen was reportedly employed at Swedish Medical Center, but Senecaut still has concerns.

"There were a lot of pain killers fed intravenously, so, I'm kind of nervous" said Senecaut about her son's situation.

Kim Fowler had surgery during the window of time Allen was working.

"Obviously, this is an extremely scary situation," said Fowler. "I am scared for the possibility that any of us could be infected."

A source familiar with the investigation told Denver7 that officials are acting with an "abundance of caution" because of allegations that the surgical tech is an IV drug user, which would place him a risk of infection from injecting narcotics.

The source stressed that authorities have found no cases where a patient was infected.

The Allen investigation raises the specter of a notorious 2009 case involving Kristen Diane Parker, a surgical tech who infected at least 18 patients with hepatitis C at Rose Medical Center in Denver. Parker abused fentanyl syringes set out in operating rooms in preparation for surgery.

Authorities said she injected herself with the liquid painkiller and then refilled the syringes with water or saline solution for patients. Authorities said patients were infected by Parker's contaminated syringes.

She was sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2010.

John C. Lincoln Medical Center's statement via Jeff Holeman is available below in full:

A surgical technician who is at the center of a case that led to communicable disease testing for patients of a Colorado hospital has been identified as a former employee of John C. Lincoln Medical Center, formerly known as North Mountain Hospital. 
Employment records show that the surgical technician Rocky Allen worked in our hospital for less than two months, from July 28, 2014 to Sept. 26, 2014. He was terminated for violation of our workplace policy when he tested positive for use of a controlled substance. It is important to note that the situation at our facility is different than the one in Colorado, and at this time, we have no indication there was harm to patients. However, because of the Colorado case, and in an abundance of safety, we are offering free hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV testing to any patient who had a surgery in which Allen served as a surgical technician.
We have identified 97 patients who were in a surgery during which Allen served as a technician. Although the likelihood that patients were exposed is extremely low, we will be contacting patients directly by phone and certified mail with instructions about testing. At this point we have no evidence of any patient exposure, but in the interest of patient safety, we're taking a position of extreme caution. Any patient who had surgery from July 28, 2014 to Sept. 26, 2014 can contact us at 623-580-5800, starting Sunday, Feb. 14, at 8 a.m. Our call center is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday - Friday, and 8 a.m. - 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday.
As soon as we found out about the Colorado incident and became aware that Allen was our former employee, we immediately began looking into the matter. We are working in close collaboration with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health and the Arizona Department of Health Services. They support our proactive stance to address any potential issue. 
Rebecca Sunenshine, MD, medical director for disease control for the Maricopa County Department of Public Health, provided the following comment: "The staff and physicians at John C. Lincoln Medical Center are doing the right thing for their patients. They immediately reached out to us about this matter, and we're collaborating with them, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control to ensure patient safety."   
We understand how unsettling this news is for our patients. We empathize with each person and their loved ones, and we are committed to providing appropriate support. Because of the situation in Colorado, we are taking action to ensure the well-being of our patients. Providing complimentary testing is the right thing to do.
The situation that happened here is an isolated, unfortunate situation. There is no evidence at this time that what happened in Colorado happened here. To ensure patient safety, we are conducting a comprehensive review of our policies and procedures related to controlled substances.
Any information about Allen's health information is protected under the federal Health Insurance Portability and Privacy Act. 

Banner Thunderbird Medical Center's statement via Jeff Nelson is available below in full:

As a health institution, patient safety is paramount to us and we certainly understand the gravity of the situation occurring in Colorado. However, as a matter of policy we are unable to comment on employee matters. That said, we understand this situation may cause anxiety among some of our former patients, and we apologize for that. To address these concerns, we are are moving toward establishing a free testing program as early as possible for those surgical patients who were treated at the time of Mr. (Robert) Allen's employment with us.