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N.H. officials expand hepatitis C testing probe to more Exeter Hospital patients

exeter hospital, hepatitis c, david kwiatkowski
This undated photo provided by the U.S. Attorney's Office in New Hampshire shows David Kwiatkowski, a former lab technician at Exeter, N.H., Hospital, accused of infecting at least 30 people with hepatitis C. AP

(CBS/AP) New Hampshire health officials want to expand hepatitis C testing to more patients of Exeter Hospital who may have been infected from an outbreak of the liver destroying disease tied to a former employee's drug use.

Thus far, 30 patients of Exeter Hospital's cardiac catheterization lab have tested positive for the virus. Traveling lab tech David Kwiatkowski, 33, stands accused of stealing syringes of the powerful anesthetic fentanyl, injecting himself with them, then putting back the syringes with a different liquid for use on catheterization patients.

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Kwiatkowski, who has the same strain of hepatitis C of those infected, denies being a drug user, despite reports from former coworkers that he'd sometimes appear to be on drugs.

Dr. Jose Montero, New Hamphsire's public health director, announced that health officials wanted to cast a wider net on testing, expanding it to include anyone who had surgery or was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) at Exeter Hospital between April 1, 2011 and May, 25, 2012.

Previously officials had only recommended testing for anyone treated at the cardiac catherization lab between October 1, 2010 and May 25, 2012. That amounted to fewer than 1,300 people while the new recommendation may cover about 6,000 former patients. The testing recommendation doesn't include patients of the hospital's ambulatory surgical center.

According to the hospital, Kwiatkowski occasionally moved patients to operating rooms or the ICU, but wasn't involved with procedures or patient care.

"As health care providers, our focus is first and foremost on our patients' care and safety," said Nancy Baese, president of the hospital's medical staff. "We would rather that thousands of our patients be tested by the state even if they all turn up negative than to miss one patient who might have been infected by this alleged criminal."

Montero said the state will be sending letters to affected patients this week inviting them to a public forum Thursday night at Exeter High School. Testing clinics will be held Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at the school where officials will be using a rapid-response blood test that will give results in 20 minutes rather than the customary several days or weeks. Those who test positive will need additional testing, however, Montero said.

Federal prosecutors say Kwiatkowski worked in at least six states. Although authorities haven't publicly identified each place, health officials in Michigan, Maryland, Kansas and New York have confirmed his employment.

Recent reports have surfaced that some former coworkers thought Kwiatkowski may have been "on something" as he was sometimes described as red-faced, red-eyed, sweating or shaking.

In a statement Tuesday, Exeter Hospital said it was sad that those who reportedly noticed such cases apparently failed to report them to law enforcement:

"This inaction allegedly resulted in Kwiatkowski being able to secure employment in other hospitals around the country, including Exeter Hospital, resulting in this hepatitis C outbreak that has touched thousands of individuals across the New Hampshire seacoast and beyond."

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