STRATHAM - Some 500 patients are expected to undergo blood tests for possible exposure to hepatitis C today as the state begins the largest public testing operation in its history in response to the outbreak at Exeter Hospital.
The first of several testing clinics opened at 10 a.m. at the Cooperative Middle School in Stratham, where about 100 workers - some from the state and others volunteers from regional public health organizations - were on hand to assist with the testing that will continue at the school on Saturday with another 500 patients expected to be tested.
“In the midst of responding to this tragedy, where a number of these people have been victimized, comes something good where people have really stepped up,” said Nicholas Toumpas, the state's health commissioner, who praised the many health professionals participating in the state clinics that will continue next week at sites in Manchester, Plaistow and Rochester.
The state is working to schedule testing for an estimated 3,300 patients who were treated in Exeter Hospital's main operating rooms and intensive care unit between April 1, 2011 and May 25, 2012 and who may have been exposed to the potentially fatal virus that can damage the liver.
A former medical technician, 33-year-old David Kwiatkowski, is accused of spreading his hepatitis C infection to 31 patients by allegedly shooting up with syringes filled with the painkiller fentanyl and then leaving dirty syringes behind, which were then used on unsuspecting patients. While the 31 who have tested positive were all patients in the hospital's cardiac catheterization lab – where Kwiatkowski worked – the hospital expanded the testing to the operating rooms and ICU after discovering that he also had access to those areas of the hospital during his employment.
The Stratham clinic plans to test approximately 65 patients an hour throughout the day, said Exeter Assistant Fire Chief Eric Wilking, who is serving as incident command officer at today's clinic through the Seacoast Regional Public Health Network, a group composed of 23 local communities.
Patients began arriving just before 10 a.m. for their scheduled appointments. Those being tested will have their blood drawn and sent to a state lab for analysis. However, some of the blood will be used for a so-called “rapid test” to give patients a preliminary result within about an hour of the test, officials said.
Diana Heath, 66, of Stratham, was one of those who had to be tested after underwent a hip replacement at the hospital in November. She said she wasn't too concerned about the test and the possible result.
“I feel fine. I'm not too worried. I just want to get it over with so I can go off to Maine,” she said.
Others were more fearful.
“I'm very nervous. I'm scared,” said Amy Stanley of Brentwood, adding that if she tests negative she'll be relieved and “just go back to being my usual self.”
Like many patients, Stanley voiced anger of the outbreak and how it could have happened in the first place.
Kwiatkowski was hired at the hospital despite being fired from at least two other hospitals. He was fired from a hospital in Pennsylvania in 2008 after he was found in areas where he wasn't assigned and again in 2010 while working at an Arizona hospital where he was discovered unresponsive in a locker room with syringes and needles on him. A drug test showed he had cocaine and marijuana in his system, according to the Arizona Heart Hospital, the facility where he was working at the time.
“I don't understand how the hospital could let someone like that slip through the cracks,” said Stanley, who underwent surgery at Exeter Hospital in February.
The following are the dates and locations of the state testing clinics for which patients can schedule an appointment:
• Cooperative Middle School, 100 Academic Way, Stratham, on Aug. 10 and 11.
• Timberlane Regional High School, 36 Greenough Road, Plaistow, on Aug. 14 and 15.
• Manchester Health Department, 1528 Elm St., Manchester, on Aug. 16, 17, and 18.
• Rochester Middle School, 47 Brock St., Rochester, on Aug. 16.
Other testing options are also available. These include the following locations:
• Exeter Hospital, Aug. 13-15, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. You must schedule an appointment directly with Exeter Hospital by calling 580-6124 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. As of Monday night, Exeter Hospital had scheduled 173 patients to have their blood drawn for testing.
• Portsmouth Regional Hospital - Hampton, Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Portsmouth Regional Hospital - Pease Tradeport, Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
For the Hampton and Pease sites, no appointment is necessary, but patients will be asked to provide their letter and proper identification.
Patients also have the option of going to their own healthcare provider to have their blood drawn. The healthcare provider must coordinate with the public health lab for the testing by calling 271-4661.