Infections at University Specialty Clinics raise questions

jholleman@thestate.comJune 25, 2014 

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At least seven people suffered serious infections after orthopedic treatment at University Specialty Clinics in 2012 and 2013, in a case that became public this week after lawyers complained about stonewalling by health officials.

The victims of the infections, contracted from December 2012 through December 2013, suffered painful symptoms that lingered for months. They came down with the mycobateria infections after being treated at University Specialty Clinics.

At least three of the victims have hired lawyers to consider suing for damages. But first, those lawyers have gone to court to force the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control to respond to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about the cases.

DHEC confirmed Wednesday that its investigation into the case was completed on May 12, but the agency didn’t comment publicly until contacted by media members more than a month later.

“Our investigation found naturally occurring bacteria, which are not generally harmful, that are found in the environment and in tap water,” according to a statement from DHEC. “Although mycobacteria rarely cause illness under normal circumstances, some people may be more susceptible to infection than others. No deaths were reported to us.​”

DHEC director Catherine Templeton said the agency publicizes outbreaks that might have broad, hard-to-locate victims. For example, if a restaurant has a salmonella outbreak, the agency gets the word out to the public because it doesn’t have a list of everyone who ate there. But in the University Specialty Clinics case, the doctors notified their patients of the potential for problems, so there was no need to spread the word to the general public, she said.

While highly contagious tuberculosis and leprosy are in the mycobacterium group, the types of mycobacterium involved in most infections acquired in medical settings are less likely to be passed from human to human. Instead, they catch a ride on medical equipment, such as syringes, introduced into human bodies.

The State sent an FOIA request Wednesday asking for a copy of the full report on the University Specialty Clinics cases. Several attorneys began in March asking for every detail relating to those cases, and they have yet to get answers. On Monday, they filed a civil action in the Court of Common Pleas in Richland County to force DHEC to respond to their inquiries.

“We’re trying to get information, and DHEC will not provide it,” said S. Randall Hood, who is representing a Columbia woman.

University Specialty Clinics is the huge medical practice comprised of the physicians at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine. It has nearly 200 doctors in 35 specialty areas, and the infections in this case were in orthopedics.

“Through our review we discovered seven patients who had contracted a mycobacterial infection since December 2012,” said Dr. William Anderson, chief medical officer at University Specialty Clinics. “All seven had been treated with injectable medications used to treat injuries and other medical conditions. University Specialty Clinics has taken appropriate actions and treatment is being provided.”

Hood said his client, a nurse, “just went in for a cortisone shot” for a knee problem and has had seven surgeries and been hospitalized 10 times with complications of the infection she contracted at University Specialty Clinics. Hood suspects many other patients at the orthopedic office were exposed to the bacteria that caused his client’s problems.

Generally, agencies have 15 days to respond to FOIA requests. Hood has had no response from DHEC to his March 4 FOIA request. Two other attorneys also have had no responses on the case since sending in FOIA requests on March 26 and April 21.

Templeton said DHEC couldn’t provide some of the information requested by the attorneys until it completed its investigation and an after-action report to federal health officials was completed. She said the after-action report recently was cleared, and the agency now can respond to the FOIA requests.

Hood said University Specialty Clinics provided him a copy of lab tests done by DHEC and submitted to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Twelve of the samples tested positive for various mycobacteria, but only one sample found the especially dangerous mycobacterium abscessus strain. Mycobacterium abscessus can cause serious lung complications or infections in wounds, and it is more resistant to antibiotics than many bacteria.

USC Specialty Clinic also sent Hood copies of two tests done by private contractors that found no mycobacterium abscessus contamination.

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