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EL PASO, Texas (AP) — More than 700 infants may have been exposed to tuberculosis at an El Paso hospital over the past year by an employee recently diagnosed with the illness, health officials said Friday.
The employee, who worked in the nursery at Providence Memorial Hospital, tested positive on Aug. 25 and was placed on leave, but she may have exposed infants and about 40 other hospital workers starting in September 2013, said Dr. Hector Ocaranza, the health authority for El Paso County.
The bacteria that cause TB can lay dormant for months or even years before they grow and cause an active case of the disease, according to the El Paso Department of Public Health. The bacterial infection is spread through the air when someone sick with TB coughs or sneezes.
"This is an incredibly large exposure investigation, and it involves infants, so it is particularly sensitive," said Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. "Babies are more likely than older children and adults to develop life-threatening forms of TB."
Hospital workers have been tested and officials are waiting on results, Ocaranza said. Letters were sent Thursday to the parents of the infants directing them to undergo screenings, which are being offered for free at the hospital. New Mexico health officials said at least 50 of the potentially affected babies live in New Mexico.
Ocaranza didn't say how the nursery worker may have contracted the disease, citing privacy laws. Employment and medical records were reviewed to determine which infants and hospital workers may have been exposed.
Williams said it was one of the largest cases of TB exposure that the state health department has been involved in. Ocaranza noted that TB is treatable and said the possible exposure at the hospital doesn't represent a public health threat.
The discovery of the infected employee also prompted an inspection of the hospital by regulators, who found several violations that could threaten the hospital's Medicare funding and posed "an immediate jeopardy to patient safety," said David Wright, deputy regional administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
Wright declined to specify the violations, saying only that they were in the areas of infection control, patient rights and management oversight. He also declined to say if the violations were related to the TB exposure.
The hospital has until Tuesday to submit a corrective plan. Wright didn't know how much federal money Providence receives, but he said that for some hospitals, it amounts to 60 percent of the operating budget.
Of the more than 500 hospitals licensed in Texas last year, 10 were issued a finding of patient safety being placed in immediate jeopardy, Wright said.
There were more than 1,200 confirmed cases of TB statewide last year, including 49 in El Paso County, according to the state health department.
"Providence Memorial Hospital is committed to doing everything we can to ensure the health and continued well-being of our patients, our employees and our community," hospital spokeswoman Audrey Garcia said.