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Jail officials vow to get to the bottom of staph outbreak

| Wednesday, April 13, 2005, 12:00 p.m.

Allegheny County Jail and Health Department officials say they do not know how many other inmates have suffered staphylococcus aureus infections similar to those that killed two women inmates March 21, but they intend to find out.

"I don't know why it hasn't been (tracked) in the past, but we're going to do it now," said Warden Ramon Rustin, who took over as warden in October.

A day after the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported that an inmate and his attorney notified jail officials about an outbreak of staph infections months before the women's deaths, the Allegheny County Jail Oversight Board announced it is setting up a panel to review health practices at the jail and how it reports infectious diseases.

Common Pleas Judge Kim Berkeley Clark said Tuesday that representatives of the jail, the county Health Department, the county solicitor's office and other officials are being asked to form the panel to find ways to prevent further outbreaks.

"They will make a report to the oversight board at its next meeting," Clark said. The nine-member board, chaired by Clark and consisting of county officials, judges and three citizen representatives, meets May 5.

Inmates Valeriya Whetsell, 50, of Homewood, and Amy Sartori, 31, of Mt. Washington, died within hours of one another March 21 after developing breathing problems.

County coroner's and Health Department officials initially tied the women's deaths to improperly mixed cleaning chemicals. Lab tests later showed an increasingly common drug-resistant staph infection known as methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) was to blame.

Staphylococcus aureus infections range from minor irritations that go undetected by sufferers to major blood infections of the drug-resistant strain that cause death, said Jennifer Morcone, a spokeswoman for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

The staph bacteria is found on skin or in the nose and is commonly spread by physical contact or through sharing laundry or sports equipment. While its fatal form is relatively rare, Morcone said, the less dangerous strain is common. "One quarter of the U.S. population can carry it and not be sick at all," she said.

Inmate Keith Maydak, 34, originally of North Versailles, and his lawyer, Peter Zahn, of San Diego, sent letters to Jail Oversight Board members and other officials in December and January saying staph infections were running rampant at the Uptown lockup on Second Avenue.

Clark pledged in a Feb. 7 response to Zahn's letter to investigate.

Health and jail officials said that never happened to their knowledge. They also say Maydak, a convicted swindler, had filed numerous complaints ranging from gripes about a lack of dental floss to copy machine access problems. His staph warning was buried in a host of other grievances, they said.

Clark left a phone message yesterday detailing plans for the panel's investigation, but did not address Maydak's warning.

She was out of town and unavailable for further comment.

Jail and health officials say the deaths of Whetsell and Sartori are the only known cases of MRSA at the jail, but they still do not know how many inmates have been struck with the less virulent strain of the bug.

Rustin said there have been "small pockets of staph infections," but the number has not been tracked by jail health officials.

He said steps were taken to fight an outbreak of the illness last year, and it appeared to have been wiped out.

The county Health Department, which oversees jail health, has not tracked the number of staph infections either, said spokesman Guillermo Cole. The disease is difficult to diagnose, even in a fatal case, Cole said, pointing to the initial incorrect causes of death listed for Whetsell and Sartori.

Maydak said he learned of the staph outbreak at the jail when a fellow inmate developed a boil on his head and was diagnosed with staph in the jail infirmary.

The second inmate could not be reached for comment yesterday, but his lawyer, Michael Foglia, said he had no knowledge of his client being ill.

Maydak said he has not been hospitalized with an infection but has had red marks on his arms and does not know whether it is a staph bug or not.

Rustin said four female jail guards who worked in the jail pod where Whetsell and Sartori were housed and who complained of flu-like symptoms about the time of the deaths will be tested for staph infection.

He said he does not believe the guards have the illness, but agreed to have them tested as a precaution.

Chuck Mandarino, president of the Allegheny County Independent Prison Employees Union, was more cautious, saying the staph infection can have many symptoms and that the women involved are suffering various complaints.

Tests will take at least several days to complete.

Mandarino said the guards have had to take some sick time, but have been working as much as possible.

Maydak said he already has seen some changes in jail operations. He said any inmates who had only one set of clothes were given a second set Monday.

Rustin also said he has added a third laundry shift and will institute stricter hygiene guidelines to try to prevent further infections.

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