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Ambulances respond to 'mass casualty incident' at Exeter Hospital

August 11. 2017 3:01PM
Multiple ambulances responded to Exeter Hospital Friday during a 'mass casualty incident.' (JASON SCHREIBER/UNION LEADER CORRESPONDENT)

EXETER — As many as 19 staff members from Exeter Hospital’s inpatient operating rooms were treated after mysteriously falling ill during a scare Friday morning that forced the hospital to close parts of the building.

Ambulances from several area communities rushed to the scene to assist as the employees were transferred to other area hospitals and investigators tested the air and tried to figure out why they suddenly felt dizzy and nauseous.

Assistant Fire Chief Eric Wilking said 12 of the hospital workers were brought to other hospitals while the rest were treated and released.

All of those who were hospitalized were released by Friday evening, hospital spokeswoman Debra Vasapolli said.

Officials spent much of the day trying to figure out why the workers became ill, but Vasapolli said no cause was ever found.

The state’s civil support team and the Seacoast’s regional hazardous materials team were called in to assist Exeter fire officials.

Wilking said there were a number of possible causes that were investigated.

“It could be outside air coming in as a contaminant. We’re looking at cleaning fluids that could have been used in the hospital. Obviously the rumor got out that it was anesthesia gas, but we don’t know that,” Wilking said, adding that hazardous materials crews used sophisticated equipment to try to find the problem.

The air was also tested for possible carbon monoxide, but Wilking said the readings showed no problem.

Vasapolli said officials determined that whatever caused the staff members to become ill was no longer present. The emergency department and inpatient operating rooms were turned back over to the hospital early Friday evening.

Vasapolli said the departments would be thoroughly cleaned before reopening. She said the emergency department was expected to reopen sometime Saturday, but she wasn’t sure when the inpatient operating rooms would be open again.

Dr. Neil Meehan, the hospital’s chief physician executive, said the incident began around 9 a.m. when about four employees in the inpatient operating room department experienced mild symptoms that included headaches and nausea.

Meehan said the situation soon “escalated” to about 10 additional workers with symptoms.

“At that point, for an abundance of caution, we decided to bring the patients to the outside, not knowing whether this may be an exposure to air or this may be infectious. We weren’t sure,” he said.

As more staffers became ill, the hospital closed its inpatient operating rooms.
“Because our ER is right above our OR, as another step in this caution we decided to close our ER,” Meehan said.

He said none of the illnesses were life threatening.

Meehan stressed that all of those staffers who were sickened were from the operating rooms and that none involved current patients at the hospital.

One patient was undergoing a procedure in an operating room at the time, but Meehan said the person wasn’t affected by the issue and is doing fine.

A total of 19 workers were treated, officials said.

An additional six hospital patients who were in the emergency department also were evacuated when it was closed, but they did not experience symptoms, Vasapolli said.

Wilking said the fire department was initially called about 9 a.m. when the first workers reported feeling ill. Crews checked for gas, but didn’t find any issues and left about an hour later.

By 11 a.m., more employees were experiencing illness and the fire department returned and declared a “mass casualty incident” that bought as many as 20 ambulances to the scene.

A staging area was set up outside the hospital as medical staff treated patients.

While the emergency department and inpatient operating rooms were closed, Vasapolli said all other areas of the hospital remained open throughout the incident.

With the emergency department temporarily closed, patients who would normally be brought to Exeter Hospital by ambulance for unrelated emergencies were diverted to other hospitals.

Ambulances lined up outside Exeter Hospital's emergency department as medical personnel assisted workers who became ill Friday morning. (Jason Schreiber/Union Leader Correspondent)

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