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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”


Hospital blunder allowed sick firefighters to keep working
an ABC Action News report 6/14/04

TAMPA - The Action News investigators have learned that a local hospital trusted with the care of Hillsborough County firefighters failed to do its job, leaving the public at risk.

University Community Hospital tested hundreds of firefighters for hepatitis-C, but never told some firefighters the results. Several infected firefighters had no idea they tested positive, and continued to work.

In 2001, University Community Hospital won a contract to provide state and federally mandated hepatitis-C screening for Hillsborough County's 700 firefighters.


But it took a full three years for UCH to notify at least five firefighters that they tested positive.

"People are very frustrated, very upset," said Karl Schmitt, the president of the firefighters union. "It's a very scary situation for them."

The firefighters' identities are protected by medical privacy laws. But their union president told Action News the infected men and their families are furious.

"They want to know, 'How could this happen? How could we not be notified that our results were positive?'" Schmitt explained. "Obviously there were some record-keeping problems."

The firefighters' families and the people they've treated in emergency situations should also be concerned. Hepatitis-C can be transmitted through blood.

"They need to be very careful in the household about what they are sharing, such as razors or bandages, or anything that could have blood on it that could transmit the disease to somebody else," warned epidemiological expert Dr. Julia Gill.

UCH's recent failures should not be surprising to county officials. Investigator Robin Guess uncovered evidence that the hospital's performance was questioned almost from the very beginning.

In 2002, just one year after the contract began, the firefighters union wrote a letter to fire chief William Nesmith complaining about "the record-keeping, accuracy, and punctuality of the department's health care provider for the infectious disease program."

"We found that people were not getting results in a timely basis. Some people were not getting results at all. Some people were getting other people's results at their homes," Schmitt recalled.

Concern about UCH's performance may now spread well beyond the county's 700 firefighters. The hospital's contract covers health testing for the county's entire workforce: that's about 4,800 additional workers whose results on a variety of tests could be in doubt or unknown.


"I think every organization in the county who has utilized University Occupational Health in the past has got to ask for a review of their records and ensure that they don't have the same kind of problems that we've had," Schmitt said.

County commissioner Pat Frank said the hospital's failures are inexcusable.

"Going three years carrying a disease and not knowing about it, that's serious. That is very serious," she observed.

What is particularly devastating for the firefighters who have unknowingly lived with hepatitis-C for the past three years is they don't know how much damage has been done to their liver in that period of time. Nor do they know if they have unknowingly passed it on.

UCH claims the chance of a firefighter passing the disease on is very low and the public should not be worried. The hospital's assistant director of occupational health says she's reviewing the charts of more than 500 firefighters to prevent more mistakes.

"Unfortunately we view that as an issue of human error," explained Dr. Toni Belisle of UCH. "What we have done in our internal reviews is identified those individuals who have positive test results or those who need further testing, and we are getting letters out next week."

But the firefighters union wants the contract with UCH ended now. The contract between the hospital and the county makes it clear: the county may immediately terminate the agreement if the hospital can't get the job done right.

Chief Nesmith told Action News he has lost confidence in the hospital and he is considering a plan to get rid of UCH as the testing provider. A decision may come as early as this week.

Meanwhile, the fire department is trying to evaluate just how many more firefighters could be affected by this failure.

"You know we are looking at worst case scenario, we are very concerned," Schmitt added. "The key thing is that the five employees that have been identified so far get the proper care; that they get their follow-up treatment."

UCH promises firefighters with questions or concerns about their status will get answers if they call 813-615-7562.