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Year after hepatitis C outbreak, testing slows

| Sunday, July 7, 2013, 9:21 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — Former medical technician David Kwiatkowski has been jailed for close to a year — longer than most of the temporary stints he worked at hospitals around the country before landing in New Hampshire in 2011.

Before he was hired by Exeter Hospital, Kwiatkowski worked as a traveling cardiac technologist in 18 hospitals in seven states, moving from job to job despite being fired twice over allegations of drug use and theft. Since his arrest last July, 47 people in four states have been diagnosed with the same strain of hepatitis C he carries and is accused of spreading through tainted syringes.

While Kwiatkowski awaits trial on federal drug charges, his former employers continue to test patients he may have infected, though the pace has slowed considerably in recent months. Only a few hundred additional patients have been tested since December, hospital and public health officials told The Associated Press, and at least 3,300 of the nearly 7,900 people asked to get tested outside of New Hampshire have yet to do so.

In Michigan, where Kwiatkowski grew up and started his career, 538 of the 2,300 patients notified by five hospitals had been tested by late June, and none has been diagnosed with a strain of hepatitis C linked to the New Hampshire outbreak, according to the Michigan Department of Community Health.

In Pennsylvania, 840 of the 2,000 patients asked to get tested by UPMC Presbyterian have done so. One was diagnosed with a matching strain of hepatitis C, a blood-borne viral infection that can cause liver disease and chronic health issues.

Kwiatkowski was fired a few weeks into his temporary job at UPMC in 2008 when a co-worker accused him of swiping a fentanyl syringe from an operating room and sticking it down his pants. Within days, he started a new job at the Baltimore VA Medical Center, where one patient has since been diagnosed with hepatitis C linked to Kwiatkowski.

In all, about 1,750 patients at four Maryland hospitals were asked to get tested. Two hospitals completed testing with no diagnosed cases of hepatitis C related to the outbreak, but six patients at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore have been diagnosed with the relevant strain of hepatitis C, and about 425 have yet to be tested, said spokeswoman Kim Hoppe.

Kwiatkowski had been referred to Johns Hopkins by a staffing agency that assured the hospital it had followed a vigorous vetting process, Hoppe said.

St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where Kwiatkowski worked in late 2007 and early 2008, notified and tested 31 patients without finding any cases linked to Kwiatkowski. In Kansas, all but a few of the 414 patients asked to get tested by Hays Medical Center have done so, and six have been diagnosed with infections linked to the New Hampshire outbreak.

A spokeswoman for the two Arizona hospitals that employed Kwiatkowski didn't return calls seeking updated figures. But by December, all but 20 of the 300 possibly exposed patients had been tested with none being diagnosed with the outbreak strain.

Kwiatkowski was fired from Arizona Heart Hospital in 2010 after a co-worker found him passed out in a bathroom stall with a stolen fentanyl syringe floating in the toilet. That incident was reported to police, Kwiatkowski's staffing agency, a state regulatory board and a national accreditation organization, but the accreditation group dropped its inquiry after learning police hadn't filed charges.

Days later, Kwiatkowski landed a new job filling in for striking technicians at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, where 312 patients were asked to get tested. The city Health Department declined to say how many have followed through, but none so far have tested positive.

There also have been no cases linked to Kwiatkowski at Houston Medical Center in Warner Robins, Ga., the last place Kwiatkowski worked before moving to New Hampshire. A spokesman for the Georgia Department of Public Health said this week the state is awaiting further tests on one specimen but none of the other test results matched the outbreak strain.

About 580 of the 4,700 possibly exposed New Hampshire patients have been tested. Thirty-two have been diagnosed with the matching strain of hepatitis C, including one who passed on the disease to another person.

Kwiatkowski, who has pleaded not guilty to 14 counts of stealing and tampering with controlled drugs, is set to go to trial in January. His lawyers have declined numerous interview requests.

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