- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 24, 2012

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Health officials said Tuesday that they are casting a wider net as they look for people who might have contracted hepatitis C from a traveling medical technician accused of causing an outbreak that has infected 30 patients.

Public health director Dr. Jose Montero said testing now is being recommended for anyone who had surgery at Exeter Hospital or was admitted to its intensive care unit from April 1, 2011, to May 25, 2012, when David Kwiatkowski worked in the hospital’s cardiac catheterization lab.

Kwiatkowski, who was charged with federal drug crimes last week, is accused of stealing anesthetic drugs from the lab, injecting himself and contaminating syringes that were later used on patients, 30 of whom have been diagnosed with the same strain of hepatitis C Kwiatkowski carries. According to the hospital, he occasionally moved patients to operating rooms or the ICU, but he wasn’t involved with procedures or patient care.

“As health care providers, our focus is first and foremost on our patients’ care and safety,” said Nancy Baese, president of the hospital’s medical staff. “We would rather that thousands of our patients be tested by the state even if they all turn up negative than to miss one patient who might have been infected by this alleged criminal.”

Testing previously had been recommended for the fewer than 1,300 people who had been treated at the lab since October 2010; the new recommendation covers about 6,000 people, some of whom might have been covered in the previous testing, Montero said. The testing recommendation doesn’t include patients of the hospital’s ambulatory surgical center.

Kwiatkowski, who was scheduled to make his initial court appearance Monday afternoon, worked as a “traveler” sent by staffing agencies to hospitals around the country, usually for temporary jobs. Federal prosecutors say he has worked in at least six states since 2007.

Although authorities haven’t publicly identified the other states, health officials in Michigan, Maryland, Kansas and New York have confirmed his employment.

Former co-workers in other states told investigators that Kwiatkowski was known for telling false stories, including saying that he had cancer. According to court documents, he was fired for falsifying his time sheets at one hospital, was accused of stealing an anesthetic drug from a hospital operating room in 2008 and aroused significant suspicion in Exeter, where co-workers said he sometimes looked like he was “on something.”

Kwiatkowski told investigators he did not steal drugs, is “not a shooter” and is scared of needles, according to court documents.

In a statement Tuesday, Exeter Hospital said it was sad that those who reportedly noticed cases of drug diversion apparently failed to report them to law enforcement.

“This inaction allegedly resulted in Kwiatkowski being able to secure employment in other hospitals around the country, including Exeter Hospital, resulting in this hepatitis C outbreak that has touched thousands of individuals across the New Hampshire seacoast and beyond.”

Montero said the state will be sending letters to affected patients this week inviting them to a public forum Thursday night at Exeter High School. Testing clinics will be held Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday at the school where officials will be using a rapid-response blood test that will give results in 20 minutes rather than the customary several days or weeks. Those who test positive will need additional testing, however, Montero said.