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Exeter Hospital reopens ER; cause of mystery illness still unknown

New Hampshire Union Leader

August 12. 2017 5:16PM
Ambulances lined up outside Exeter Hospital's emergency department as medical personnel assisted workers who fell ill Friday morning. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

EXETER — The Emergency Department of Exeter Hospital reopened at noon Saturday — about 27 hours after a mysterious odor contributed to the sudden sickening of 20 operating room staff members.

The ER was closed because it is right above the inpatient operating rooms where hospital workers began feeling dizzy and nauseated Friday morning.

“It was a tremendous effort on the part of numerous agencies — certainly the local hospitals that supported us in the wake of dealing with this issue; we’re very grateful,” said Debra Vasapolli, a hospital spokesman.

Plans remain for the hospital’s operating rooms to open for business Monday morning. Currently, no surgeries scheduled for the coming week have been changed, she said.

“The expectation is we will be open and fully operational in the inpatient operating room as well by Monday,” Vasapolli said.

“Of course there is no certainty, but that’s our goal and what we are aiming for,” she said.

Twelve hospital workers were taken to other hospitals; the rest were treated and released. All were out of the hospital by Friday evening.

“Everyone is doing very well and the symptoms have all subsided,” Vasapolli said. “We are very relieved to say they are all doing well.”

First responders said they are no closer to discovering what caused the mass casualty event.

“We sampled air. We sampled — everything normal. Filtration, everything in the OR and the ED and found nothing that would’ve caused this,” Assistant Fire Chief Eric Wilking said Saturday.

Wilking said a number of possible causes were investigated.

“It could be outside air coming in as a contaminant. We’re looking at cleaning fluids that could have been used in the hospital. Obviously the rumor got out that it was anesthesia gas, but we don’t know that,” Wilking said, adding that hazardous materials crews used sophisticated equipment to search for the source.

The air was also tested for carbon monoxide, but Wilking said the readings showed no problem.

Fire officials also determined there was no liquid spill of any kind.

The hazmat crews turned the emergency room and operating room spaces back to hospital administrators late Friday night, officials said.

The mystery turned the incident into a breaking news headline story on national television network broadcasts Friday night.

The grounds looked like an outdoor ER as patients and visitors to the hospital were taken outside while ambulances from area communities rushed to assist the sickened staff members.

Health Public Safety Exeter


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