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Virginia Mason hospital confirms 2 more deaths among infected patients

Seattle Times - 6/7/2023

Jun. 7—Virginia Mason Medical Center has confirmed two additional deaths among patients who became infected after a bacterial outbreak emerged at the Seattle hospital last fall.

The outbreak, caused by Klebsiella pneumoniae bacteria, has infected at least 33 people, nine of whom have died, the hospital said in an update Wednesday. The latest known confirmed case was identified in early April, the hospital said, though it's unclear when the deaths occurred.

The source of the outbreak is still under investigation.

"While the risk of transmission is extremely low for patients, we continue to take proactive steps to avoid additional transmission," interim hospital President Sydney Bersante said in a statement.

No further information about the patients who died or were infected was immediately available.

According to Virginia Mason, officials learned about a potential outbreak in October, when several staffers started noticing similar bacterial infections on one floor. At that point, the hospital increased safety measures and started working with local and state public health teams, in addition to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to test bacteria strains.

Virginia Mason began notifying patients who might be infected in early December.

Results from state labs returned in December, confirming the affected patients were infected by the same strain of bacteria, hospital officials have said.

The outbreak appears to have peaked, according to the hospital. Teams from Virginia Mason, Public Health — Seattle & King County and the state Department of Health continue to investigate and have not yet determined a source of transmission, the hospital said Wednesday. It added that "due to the medical complexity of these patients' conditions," it could be difficult to confirm whether or not Klebsiella contributed to or caused their deaths.

Dr. Andrew Ross, the hospital's interim chief clinical officer, said in late April that the bacteria has primarily infected "medically complicated" patients with several underlying health conditions. He declined to say if any healthy patients had been infected.

"Environmental testing for a specific strain of bacteria can be like finding a needle in a haystack, especially because bacteria can be found in places such as sinks or drains," Dr. Eric Chow, King County's chief of communicable disease, added in a statement. "That's why continued diligence by hospitals in infection control, including hand hygiene, is so critical."

Klebsiella is a common pathogen that often lives in our bodies, including in our intestines, though sometimes it can cause infections if it gets into a part of the body it's not usually found, according to a post from Public Health — Seattle & King County.

The bacteria usually spread in health care settings through person-to-person contact, like from contaminated hands, public health officials said. Klebsiella can also contaminate surfaces, such as medical equipment, and can then spread from the equipment to the patient. It does not spread through the air.

Public health officials say there isn't a clear incubation period for Klebsiella infections, so people could be carrying the bacteria without showing symptoms for weeks to months. Symptoms can also differ depending on where the infection is located, but if the bacteria causes pneumonia, patients could start feeling fevers, chills and other flu-like symptoms.

Klebsiella can also cause urinary tract, blood or tissue infections. People are encouraged to contact their primary care providers if they believe they've been infected.

These types of infections are often treated with antibiotics, though Klebsiella and other types of bacteria have become increasingly resistant to medications normally used for treatment, according to King County public health officials.

The strain identified in Virginia Mason Medical Center's outbreak in particular has an enzyme that breaks down common types of antibiotics, but other available drugs are still effective, public health teams said.

Information from The Seattle Times archives was included in this story.


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