In an all-too-familiar scenario, a hospital worker charged with diverting drugs in Colorado had a history of moving from hospital to hospital, prompting several other facilities to advise thousands of patients to get tested for bloodborne pathogens.

According to a federal indictment,1 Rocky Allen, 28, a former surgical technologist at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, CO, is charged with tampering with a consumer product and obtaining a controlled substance by deceit. On January 22, 2016, Allen allegedly took a syringe containing fentanyl citrate and replaced it with a similar syringe containing another substance, the indictment charges.

As a result, Swedish Medical Center has advised some 3,000 patients who had surgery between August 17, 2015, and January 22, 2016, to be tested for HIV, hepatitis B, and hepatitis C. The charges set off patient notifications in several other states and hospitals, some of which had apparently fired Allen for alleged drug diversion. These include two hospitals in Washington state and hospitals in Arizona and California, bringing the total of potentially exposed patients to more than 5,000. According to published reports, Allen pled not guilty, surrendered his passport, and is out on a $25,000 bail. A judge ordered him to stay at a halfway house and get drug treatment.

Authorities have confirmed that the worker has a bloodborne infection, but have not identified which one. Typically, these cases involve HCV, but patients are also being advised to be tested for HIV and hepatitis B. There are reports of two former Swedish surgical patients testing positive for hepatitis, but it was not immediately clear if they were infected during care or had pre-existing infections.

LAWSUIT FILED

On March 8, 2016, former patients at Swedish filed a class-action lawsuit charging that “despite Rocky Allen’s well-documented drug addiction and erratic and … suspicious employment history, defendants hired him as a surgical technician.” The suit accuses the hospital and its corporate parent of negligence in hiring and failing to properly supervise Allen; failing to take steps to prevent employees from drug diversion, and subjecting patients to significant risk and anxiety by potentially exposing them to a life-threatening bloodborne pathogen. (The lawsuit can be viewed at: bit.ly/22I7hr0.)

The suit alleges that an employee at Swedish Medical observed Allen taking a syringe filled with fentanyl and replacing it with another syringe in an operating room. The employee told investigators that Allen walked into Operating Room 5, spoke with other individuals, then went to the Pyxis station, picked up a syringe, and replaced it with another one before quickly leaving the room. Allen, who was apparently scheduled to be in Operating Room 12 that day, later tested positive for fentanyl, the lawsuit alleges.

According to the suit, Christy Berg, a special agent for the Food and Drug Administration, testified on February 19, 2016, that Allen was terminated from numerous jobs for drug related reasons. In 2011, Allen was court-martialed by the United States Navy and pled guilty to making a false official statement, wrongfully possessing approximately 30 vials of fentanyl, wrongly possessing a syringe containing fentanyl, stealing fentanyl, and stealing a syringe containing fentanyl, the lawsuit claims.

Other specific incidents cited in the lawsuit include that Allen was fired in June 2013 by Scripps Green Hospital in La Jolla, CA, after he was caught switching a fentanyl syringe with a saline-filled syringe. Scripps said in a statement that it notified the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency after taking the action. However, Allen was able to move and find subsequent employment at John C. Lincoln North Mountain Hospital in Phoenix, where he was fired in September 2014 after testing positive for fentanyl, the lawsuit alleges.

The case is similar to one discovered in a New Hampshire hospital in 2012, when an HCV-infected traveling radiology technician was linked to a cluster of HCV patient infections. The subsequent investigation uncovered a large HCV outbreak spanning several years, involving more than a dozen hospitals and affecting thousands of patients in eight states. The technician was stealing syringes filled with narcotics, self-injecting, refilling them with saline, and placing them back into the procedure area, officials reported. He was sentenced to 39 years in prison.

REFERENCE

  1. U.S. Attorneys Office District of Colorado. Swedish Medical Center Surgical Tech/Technologist Indicted by Federal Grand Jury in Denver on Charges of Tampering with a Consumer Product and Obtaining a Controlled Substance by Deceit: Feb. 16. 2016: 1.usa.gov/1URmh0O.