CONCORD — State health officials will begin a series of public clinics next week to test people who may be at risk for a hepatitis C strain from the outbreak at Exeter Hospital.
Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Nicholas Toumpas announced the new testing dates on Friday. It involves testing about 3,300 patients who could have been exposed to the virus. The state postponed the testing last week, saying more time was needed to organize such a large-scale operation.
“Clearly it is a significant effort,” Toumpas said. “We believe that we've had the ample time to be able to ensure all the logistics were going to be in place.”
The state is sending letters and plans follow-up calls to each of the patients who was treated at the hospital in areas where a former medical technician Eric Kwiatkowski had access.
Kwiatkowski, 33, is accused of injecting himself with painkillers and contaminating syringes later used on patients. He also is charged with obtaining controlled substances by fraud and tampering with a consumer product.
Kwiatkowski is scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 24, but federal prosecutors have asked for a continuance to allow more time to complete the investigation, which involves hospitals in several other states.
U.S. Attorney John Kacavas filed a motion Thursday seeking a continuance until Oct. 5.
State epidemiologist Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis said Friday that 30 people have tested positive for the strain Kwiatkowski has. Another 17 people tested since the outbreak was discovered have tested positive for hepatitis C, but it is a strain unrelated to the Exeter outbreak.
Alroy-Preis said while early detection is important in treating the virus, holding off the tests until next week still allows plenty of time.
“Early in this case means weeks or a few months. It doesn't mean today or tomorrow,” Alroy-Preis said.
The first public clinic will be next Friday and Saturday at Stratham's Cooperative Middle School. Other clinics will follow later in Plaistow on Aug. 14-15, Manchester on Aug. 16-18 and Rochester on Aug. 16.
The test involves a blood sample and takes about 45 minutes to process, Alroy-Preis said. With so many people involved, the state wanted to avoid an overflow of people by spreading out the locations and times.
The state will also have a hotline starting Monday for people to call for more information.
“When we actually got the list, we realized that over 50 percent of people on the list are age 50 or older and with a significant portion of the people over the age of 70 and even 80, and we didn't want those people to be waiting for long periods of time in line,” Alroy-Preis said. “We wanted to hold off and have the opportunity for people to schedule their time to be tested. So that took us this time to organize several clinics in different sites.”
People can also schedule testing on their own at Exeter Hospital on Aug. 13-15 and Portsmouth Regional Hospital or through their own health care provider.
Through hospital records, the state has narrowed the list of remaining people to be tested to about 3,300.
Because the virus can take up to six months before it is detected, another round of tests may be needed for patients who may have been exposed more recently, Alroy-Preis said.
“The testing for hepatitis C is very complex,” Alroy-Preis said. “It takes the body up to six months to develop antibodies.”
The number for the state hotline, which will be in service starting Monday, is (603) 271-6617.
More information is available at the following sites: www.dhhs.nh.gov/dphs/cdcs/hepatitisc/index.htm and www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/index.htm.