By Ryan Blethen, Daniel Gilbert and David Gutman / The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — Seattle Children’s hospital said it is closing all operating rooms on its Seattle campus for at least five days in an effort to get a handle on a recurring mold problem that, since last year, has killed one patient and sickened at least six others.
The celebrated pediatric hospital’s continuing struggle to eradicate the mold comes as it faces a new claim of negligence. Seattle Children’s was sued late last month by the parents of a teenage boy who allege that the hospital’s mold problem caused an infection that left their son disabled.
The lawsuit, which hasn’t been reported previously, claims that the teen contracted meningitis in March 2018 from the Aspergillus mold that has repeatedly been found in the hospital’s operating rooms.
“Seattle Children’s hospital failed to take reasonably prudent measures to prevent aspergillus from infecting” the boy, according to the lawsuit filed Oct. 25 in King County Superior Court. The Seattle Times is not naming the plaintiffs — the boy’s parents — to protect his privacy.
The parents, who live in Whatcom County, and the law firm representing them didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
“We are deeply sorry for the impact the air quality issue in our operating rooms has had on our patients and families,” said Kathryn Mueller, a Seattle Children’s spokeswoman. “While we will not share details about our patients or comment on specific cases out of respect for privacy, we remain fully committed to working with this family through the legal process and supporting them during what we know is a very difficult time.”
At least four patients have been sickened by the fungus this year, and at least three were infected in 2018, one of whom died, the hospital has said.
Children’s closed three of its 14 operating rooms Sunday after testing found Aspergillus. The hospital confirmed two days later that a patient undergoing surgery became ill and that it is monitoring a second patient for possible aspergillosis, a disease caused by the mold.
During the newly announced closure, the hospital said it plans to clean the rooms as well as sanitize and address any problems it finds with the air-handling system that serves the rooms. An air-handling unit was also blamed after Aspergillus mold was found in Children’s operating rooms earlier this year.
Aspergillus is a common mold, found outdoors and indoors, that people breathe in daily without getting sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with lung disease or weakened immune systems, and especially organ- or stem-cell-transplant patients, are at higher risk of developing aspergillosis, which can range from mild to serious, manifesting as an allergic reaction or as infections in the lungs and other organs.
Operating rooms and affiliated areas have been tested for mold spores at least once a week since July 4, when they were reopened following the earlier infections, according to the hospital. After this round of inspection and cleaning of the air-handling unit, the hospital will test the air daily, Mueller said.
Planned surgeries are being postponed or moved to other hospitals, including Children’s Bellevue campus, UW Medical Center, Harborview Medical Center and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, Mueller said. Unexpected surgeries for patients at the Seattle campus will be performed in other parts of the hospital, she said.
Children’s hasn’t said how many patients might have been exposed or how many patients they will be contacting about the latest mold problem. About 3,000 patients and their families were notified when the operating rooms were shut down in May.
In June 2018, two operating rooms and an equipment storage room were closed for three days after Aspergillus was detected. That infestation was thought to be due to small gaps in the walls of the two operating rooms.
Hospital officials attributed another infestation, discovered in May of this year, to a gap in the array of small air filters in an air-handling unit that has since been shut down. Children’s closed all of its operating rooms later that month, reopening them July 4.
State inspectors visited Children’s on May 30 and issued the hospital a statement of deficiencies based on that visit. Children’s released a plan June 27 to correct those deficiencies. The state did a surprise inspection Aug. 7 and signed off on Children’s plans to fix its problems.