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UPMC sued for negligence after infected nurse exposes thousands to tuberculosis

Natasha Lindstrom
| Wednesday, June 6, 2018, 6:31 p.m.
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center offices in Downtown Pittsburgh
Keith Srakocic/AP
University of Pittsburgh Medical Center offices in Downtown Pittsburgh

A former patient is suing UPMC for negligence after learning she was among thousands of people potentially exposed to tuberculosis by an emergency room nurse who may have been contagious with the infectious disease for four consecutive months, court records filed Wednesday show.

The plaintiff, Michelle Harris-Barber of Allegheny County, is seeking more than $25,000 in damages and other relief on behalf of herself as well as "all other similarly situated individuals," according to the class-action complaint filed in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court.

The complaint alleges that UPMC demonstrated "careless conduct" and failed by allowing the infected nurse to go undetected for so long, in spite of policies, rules and procedures intended to prevent such prolonged risks from happening.

"We have not yet had a chance to review this just-filed complaint, but UPMC acted quickly to work with local health authorities to notify potentially exposed patients and to protect their health," UPMC spokeswoman Allison Hydzik said by email shortly before 7 p.m. Wednesday. "We will defend this suit in court, not in the media."

In April, UPMC notified about 4,700 people — mostly emergency patients — that they had made contact with the infected employee between Oct. 28 and Feb. 28 — the "exposure window" based on the widest possible range that the person could have been contagious, Hydzik told the Trib at the time.

Harris-Barber was exposed to the infected employee while at UPMC Presbyterian hospital on Oct. 31 and received the notification letter April 11, the lawsuit says.

The infected UPMC nurse — who eventually was placed on leave to recover at home — also was a patient at an ophthalmology clinic at the Oakland hospital and a physician's office at Magee-Womens Hospital, according to UPMC. The health system's officials say they do not believe the employee contracted tuberculosis while at work.

The health care and hospital system urged those placed at risk to get screened and provided testing free of charge, with help from the Allegheny County Health Department.

Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial disease primarily infecting the lungs that can spread through coughing or sneezing. An active infection can cause chest pain and persistent coughing that results in an infected person coughing up blood.

Of the people who catch the bacteria, just 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 unless something weakens the patient's immune system.

The newly filed lawsuit argues that UPMC's professional negligence caused Harris-Barber and others like her to have to undergo additional medical care and suffer from mental anguish and pain. It outlines a slew of TB-related hospital regulations that should have been followed to prevent such an incident, including annual testing requirements for employees and training on how to spot the symptoms of TB.

Brendan B. Lupetin, the Pittsburgh-based attorney representing Harris-Barber, was not available to comment late Wednesday.

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

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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