State to begin tracking hospital cases tied to deadly germ MRSA
The state Department of Health will require hospitals to report cases of MRSA as a way to fight the epidemic.
Seattle Times staff reporters
In an effort to combat the state's most widespread infection epidemic, Washington hospitals will be required for the first time to report all patient cases linked to the potentially deadly germ MRSA, state Department of Health officials announced Tuesday.
State health officials will begin analyzing this new patient data next month to track infection rates linked to an antibiotic-resistant germ whose toll has remained hidden from the public for decades.
The Health Department also is seeking an additional $768,000 in public funds to identify MRSA outbreaks in hospitals and in such community settings as schools and workplaces.
The state's initiatives follow a Seattle Times investigation, "Culture of Resistance," which reported this week that MRSA infection rates have soared as hospitals often ignored steps to control the threat.
In the first comprehensive tracking of the germ, The Times found that the number of hospitalized Washington patients infected with MRSA escalated over the past decade from 141 a year to 4,723 last year.
Washington hospitals have adopted an inconsistent and haphazard array of infection-control measures to control MRSA's spread, The Times found. In a move that may place patients at risk, at least two hospitals put patients with MRSA in rooms with patients who are not infected.
"We've learned a lot, and obviously we have a lot to learn," said Department of Health Secretary Mary Selecky.
MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, is spread by touch or contact and can slip through small breaks in the skin. Most infections occur on the skin and are easily treated, but the germ can be fatal if it gets into the blood.
Six of seven people infected with MRSA contract it at a health-care facility.
Identifying cases treated inside Washington hospitals is just "one piece" in the state's strategy to thwart MRSA, Selecky said.
Additional state funding will enable the Health Department to track the source and the strain of the germ in order to identify the best antibiotic strategies.
State Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, believes the Health Department has been slow to react to MRSA's rise.
Last November, he wrote to Gov. Christine Gregoire and complained that the Health Department was not doing enough to track or stop infectious germs.
"Frankly, we are presently in the dark and are relying on media reports and other anecdotal accounts to get a picture on the situation. This is obviously not the best way to handle the problem," he wrote.
In the same month, Gregoire ordered the Health Department to convene a panel of experts on hospital infections. But that panel's report, issued this year, consisted of little more than a restatement of previously published medical research on MRSA.
The Times series examined how hospitals often fail to observe such standard infection-control measures as hand hygiene and keeping their rooms and equipment clean.
The state Health Department inspects hospitals, but, under a Washington law that took effect in 2004, gives them four weeks' notice. Department of Health officials said they do not have a position on the law.
Betsy McCaughey, chairman and founder of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, a nonprofit based in New York, said Washington's four-week alert is "preposterous."
"That advance notice means hospital administrators scramble to make cosmetic improvements," she said.
Since 1996, Washington hospitals have submitted monthly reports that detailed diagnosis and treatment information for hospitalized patients. The data, which does not contain patient identities, is coded and computerized by the Health Department.
The medical codes are part of an international classification system that provides uniformity in health-care records. But until now, there have not been specific codes for MRSA. Five new MRSA codes were approved last month by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
By agreeing to adopt the federal codes, Washington can track MRSA cases identified by hospitals. It could take up to a year before all hospitals have learned how to apply the new codes, health officials said.
McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York, approved of the Health Department's plans to implement the MRSA codes, saying transparency helps the public and state regulators hold hospitals accountable.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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