State regulators cite Oakland hospital, police and fire departments

Using a new state law for the first time, state regulators Monday issued fines to a private hospital and a police and fire department for failing to report and prevent the spread of bacterial meningitis. The failure to follow safety and reporting protocol, regulators said, sickened two workers who ended up unconscious in intensive care.

Alta Bates Sutter Medical Center in Oakland was fined $101,485 by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health for 10 health and safety violations after officials failed to immediately notify public authorities and protect staff when an infected patient arrived Dec. 3, 2009, regulators said Monday.

Oakland police and fire departments also were cited for failing to notify and protect the staff who helped take the patient to the hospital. The Oakland Police Department was fined $31,520 for nine violations and the Oakland Fire Department was fined $2,710 for five violations.

A respiratory therapist and an Oakland police officer who assisted the patient became ill soon after, lost consciousness and had to be hospitalized for about a week with meningitis, according to regulators and nurses at the hospital. Both have since recovered, nurses said.

Cal/OSHA Chief Len Welsh said such exposures are “completely preventable and should never happen.”

His office issued the fines under a law passed last year that made California the first state in the nation to set strict standards for reporting infectious airborne diseases such as meningitis, measles and H1N1 flu. The law applies mainly to healthcare facilities, but also to prisons, homeless shelters, drug treatment programs and some laboratories.

Officials have up to 15 days to appeal the fines and are entitled to a hearing, said Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Krisann Chasarick.

A spokeswoman for the hospital said it plans to appeal.

“The medical center immediately responded to this very unfortunate and unusual occurrence. A thorough investigation was completed and a performance improvement action plan to prevent an event like this from reoccurring was implemented,” Carolyn Kemp said is a statement late Monday.