October 1, 2012 — Health officials in Boston are in the process of notifying 57 people that they may have been exposed to blood pathogens when they were treated by city ambulance workers during the summer of 2011. Officials have identified a paramedic who is believed to have tampered with injectable narcotic painkillers while working for the Boston Public Health Commission, which operates the city’s ambulance service, for six weeks during 2011. The officials do not know whether the worker carried any infectious blood diseases, but they are offering free blood tests to the 57 people who may have been exposed.
The health department has made telephone calls to the victims, and will follow-up by sending letters offering free medical tests to check whether they have developed a blood disease. Officials have also notified the Boston Police Department, state public health officials, and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
The hospital has not named the paramedic or filed charges, but there is an ongoing criminal investigation. It is also unclear how the ambulance worker gained access to the powerful painkillers. The company’s security rules mandate that two ambulance workers must be present whenever patients are given the drugs.
Experts warn that drug diversion by healthcare workers is not uncommon. The workers typically target powerful liquid opioid painkillers for personal use or sale. Drugs like fentanyl are one of the most commonly stolen painkillers. The worker typically injects the drug, re-fills it with another liquid (usually water or saline), and then replaces the syringe where it was found. When the dirty needle is used on a patient, any blood diseases the worker had could be transmitted to a patient. The patient is also deprived of painkillers, often after an injury or before surgery.
The paramedic incident follows another incident at Exeter Hospital in New Hampshire. A medical technician named David Kwiatkowski was diverting drugs at the hospital while he was infected with hepatitis C. At least 30 people have tested positive for hepatitis C. Thousands more people are being tested for the disease.
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