Tuberculosis deaths raise exposure concerns at Las Vegas Valley hospitals

More than 200 people have been tested for tuberculosis and that number could double as the Southern Nevada Health District widens its investigation into a case of the infectious disease that killed a mother and her child, who died at a Las Vegas hospital.

Local health officials said Monday they were contacting others who should be tested for TB. By evening, staff had reached about half the parents of 140 infants who could have been exposed while in Summerlin Hospital Medical Center’s Level III neonatal intensive care unit from May 11 to Aug. 8.

An August report from the Health District says a woman who gave birth to premature twins in Clark County died from TB in July at a Southern California hospital. One twin died in June from “respiratory failure due to extreme prematurity,” according to the report.

The other twin lived until August, the report says, but succumbed to TB. The Health District did not name the woman or her babies in the report and a spokeswoman said the agency wouldn’t identify them because of privacy concerns.

Clark County coroner’s office records say 21-day-old Emma White died June 1 because she was extremely premature and her respiratory system failed. Records say 2-month-old Abigail White died Aug. 1 from tuberculosis.

The Health District got notice of the mother’s July death and informed Summerlin Hospital about the tuberculosis risk, said Dr. Joseph Iser, the district’s chief health officer. NICU staff immediately isolated the living twin from other babies in the unit for testing. Results came back positive for pulmonary tuberculosis. That means bacteria are spread through the lungs — by coughing, talking or sneezing.

The mother gave the baby TB, Iser said, either while in the womb or while giving birth.

Medical personnel didn’t test the twin who died in June for TB because it wasn’t a suspected cause at the time.

As of Aug. 22, the date of the Health District’s report, 155 Summerlin Hospital staffers and at least 69 friends and family members of the mother had been tested for TB. By Monday, Iser said the Health District, with assistance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was pushing for additional testing out of “an abundance of caution.”

“I don’t believe that we’ll have many — if any — exposures that turn out to be positive for tuberculosis,” Iser said. Someone who visited Summerlin Hospital a few times while the infected baby was there probably is not at risk, Iser said.

At least one NICU staffer was infected, Iser said, but has since recovered.

The Health District’s August report said the mother of the twins gave birth at a Clark County hospital, but did not identify the facility. A Health District spokeswoman said those who came in contact with the mother at that site also would be urged to take TB tests.

About 400 babies a year enter Summerlin Hospital’s Level III NICU, according to the Valley Health System, which operates five medical centers in the Las Vegas Valley. The hospital stressed Monday that it takes multiple levels of precautions against spreading germs, including washing hands, wearing protective gowns, gloves and masks and rigorous cleaning and disinfecting.

“People with infectious diseases may visit many places until they are diagnosed and hospitalized,” said Robert Freymuller, CEO and managing director of Summerlin Hospital, in a prepared statement.

Tuberculosis spreads with prolonged contact in close quarters, such as classrooms, homeless shelters or jails.

Allison Newlon Moser, executive director of the American Lung Association in Nevada, said many people carry a latent, or dormant, case of tuberculosis. It’s similar to people who break out with chickenpox — they may never show symptoms again but still carry the virus that causes it.

The Atlanta-based media team for the CDC’s infectious disease team, which investigates tuberculosis outbreaks, is on furlough now along with about two-thirds of the center’s 13,000 employees. That’s because of the federal government shutdown. A worker who answered another CDC information line couldn’t confirm whether federal workers were working on the Las Vegas-area case.

Review-Journal writer Wesley Juhl contributed to this report.

Contact reporter Adam Kealoha Causey at acausey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0361. Follow on Twitter @akcausey.