L.A. Hospital Reopens Natal Care Unit After Deadly Bacteria Outbreak

A hospital where the deaths of two premature babies may be linked to a bacterial outbreak reopened its neonatal intensive care unit Tuesday night after two weeks of not accepting new patients.

Hospital executives said the decision to reopen White Memorial Medical Center's busy neonatal unit was made after consulting with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and other medical experts.

Dr. Rosalio Lopez, the hospital's chief medical officer, said he was confident the outbreak had been contained.

"We're sorry that it happened. We've expressed our condolences to the families, but we feel that we have done everything possible," Lopez said in a telephone interview.

White Memorial closed off its neonatal and pediatrics intensive care units Dec. 4 following an outbreak of Pseudomonas aeruginosa that sickened seven young patients. The pathogen is a common but potentially deadly bacterium, particularly to people with weak immune systems.

Of the roughly two million hospital-acquired infections each year, about 10 percent are caused by P. aeruginosa. The germ can be spread by health care workers, medical instruments, disinfectant solutions and food.

White Memorial on Monday reopened its pediatrics unit to new patients after it determined the bacterial strain that sickened two older children was not passed on by the same equipment that infected five infants. The source of the older children's infection has yet to be determined.

Two premature babies in the neonatal unit died. No autopsy was conducted on the first baby. The Los Angeles County coroner's office was examining the second.

Hospital officials believe the germ that caused the neonatal outbreak was spread by an improperly sterilized laryngoscope, a type of throat tube.

An investigation by county public health officials determined that instruments were previously disinfected by an in-house sterilization department, but that for reasons not immediately clear the practice was changed in March and the unit's staff began cleaning them.

Lopez declined to discuss the hospital's cleaning policy, but said the medical center will heed advice to clean medical equipment through a central department.

Dr. Laurene Mascola, director of the county's acute communicable disease control unit, praised White Memorial for alerting authorities early about the problem.

"It's a done deal," Mascola said. "We have the smoking gun."

David Marin, the father of one of the dead infants, said he has spoken with other parents about possible legal action against the hospital.

White Memorial said in a statement that at least one family had hired a lawyer, but declined to elaborate, citing medical privacy law.