By Brian Messenger
Newburyport Daily News

NEWBURYPORT — Anna Jaques Hospital is considering more drug testing for employees in the wake of a hepatitis C outbreak at a nearby New Hampshire hospital that has affected at least 30 people.

New Hampshire health officials suspect the outbreak of hepatitis C at Exeter Hospital was caused by an employee who stole and injected hospital drugs and used contaminated needles on patients in the hospital's Cardiac Catheterization Lab and recovery room.

So far 30 patients have tested positive for the same strain hepatitis C — a blood-borne viral infection that causes liver damage and potentially chronic health problems.

Several officials interviewed last week admit what occurred at Exeter Hospital could happen anywhere, given that it appears the outbreak was caused by an individual employee.

"I do think this is something that could happen in most hospitals," said Delia O'Connor, president and chief executive officer of Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport. "Unfortunately, there are stories like this around the country. ... Nothing is a sure thing when it comes — apparently — to addiction and the behaviors it stimulates."The Exeter outbreak is reportedly being investigated by the New Hampshire attorney general's office and U.S. attorney's office. First reported in June, the hospital had found four patients with the virus. The number climbed to 30 last week with 45 more patients to be tested.

With strict protocols in place for storing and administering medicine and sanitizing medical instruments and equipment, area hospital officials said their patients' safety is already a priority.

All 1,000 employees at Anna Jaques Hospital must pass a drug test before they are hired. But after the Exeter outbreak, O'Connor said the hospital board is considering continued employee drug testing.

O'Connor said the hospital also counts on employees to report potential problems with their coworkers.

"We have very vigilant employees," said O'Connor. "They are very attuned to picking up if their coworkers have issues ... Employees are empowered to protect patients and go out of the chain of command."

In Massachusetts, the state Department of Public Heath requires that communicable diseases be reported to the department within 24 hours of diagnosis.

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