By Jack Phillips
A hospital in Indiana notified patients that they may have been exposed to tuberculosis, a serious bacterial infection that can lead to death, after a staff member recently tested positive for it.
Clark Memorial Health in Jeffersonville, a city located on the Ohio River, told news outlets Thursday that it sent out hundreds of letters after the staff member tested positive for tuberculosis. Clark County Health Officer Eric Yazel said that the hospital saw a “significant exposure” to tuberculosis, also known as TB and caused by the Mycobacterium tuberculosis bacterium.
“And then we’ve been contacting some individuals at the individual level and monitoring,” Mr. Yazel told the News and Tribune. “It doesn’t look like that exposure is turning into a plot of positive tests … but that’s definitely something that we’ve been responding to from the health department side of things.”
Officials told WKLY-TV that two people tested positive after the July exposure in Clark Memorial. However, other local media outlets have said that no other positive tests have been confirmed.
Clark Memorial Health, in a statement, confirmed that its employee returned a positive test and is now doing contact tracing. It’s not clear if the employee is under quarantine.
“We are working closely with the Indiana Department of Health and the Clark County Health Department and are following the appropriate infectious disease protocols, which includes conducting contact tracing to identify and test individuals who may have been potentially exposed. Due to privacy laws, we are unable to provide additional information at this time,” the hospital’s statement said.
The hospital attempted to reassure the community that it is “safe to come to the hospital” despite the confirmed case. “Our providers and clinical teams are well-trained and prepared to manage all kinds of infectious diseases, including TB, and our stringent infection control protocols remain in place,” it added.
No details were provided on how the staffer may have contracted tuberculosis, which is relatively rare in the United States but more common in third-world and developing countries. Known formerly as “consumption” or “white plague,” tuberculosis was once the leading killer in the U.S. and Europe, leaving 1 in 7 people dead in the late 19th century.
Mr. Yazel told the News and Tribune that the exposure took place over a lengthy period of time rather than an isolated incident. “If you haven’t heard about it, you probably have nothing to worry about,” he said. “If you weren’t notified that you were a potential exposure, then there is very little to worry about.”
Mr. Yazel said that people who got the notification are in a “very low-risk situation,” adding that “we want to make sure as a health department that we’re helping to navigate that so that anybody who does need to be tested or follow it up can do it in a low barrier, basically convenient fashion.”
The county health department has carried out about 60 tuberculosis blood tests so far, he added.
“Then a lot of folks have been tested through their primary physicians or in other modalities,” Mr. Yazel said. “There are some that we haven’t heard from that we will be circling back to in the next few weeks. I think the situation is really well contained and well handled by the state, by Clark and by us helping wherever we can.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can target other parts of the body, including the brain, spine, and kidneys.
“Not everyone infected with TB bacteria becomes sick. As a result, two TB-related conditions exist: latent TB infection (LTBI) and TB disease. If not treated properly, TB disease can be fatal,” it says.
Officials say that tuberculosis treatment usually involves a lengthy, monthslong treatment involving several different strong antibiotics. The disease can be fatal if left untreated, and it is one of the top infectious killers worldwide.
Symptoms include a “bad cough” that can last three weeks or longer, chest pain, coughing up blood or sputum, weight loss, low-grade fever, chills, no appetite, night sweats, and weakness or fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic and the CDC.
Last month, it was confirmed that some illegal immigrant children who tested positive for tuberculosis were released across the United States from government custody over the course of about a year. The children, under the age of 18, had latent—not active—tuberculosis infections, according to a report from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).
A latent tuberculosis infection means an infection without symptoms requires three to nine months of antibiotic treatment to prevent it from becoming the active form of the disease, according to officials. Between 5 and 10 percent of latent infections will develop active tuberculosis.
HHS said in its report that officials in 44 states received some 2,450 alerts of illegal alien minors who had tuberculosis in the year ending on May 31, 2023.
Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data showing tuberculosis cases rose by 5 percent in 2022 to 8,300 cases across the United States.
Clark County was contacted for comment on Friday.