UCLA superbug: Outbreak ‘not a threat to public health,’ officials say

Dr. Zachary Rubin speaks outside Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on Feb. 19 about infections of patients with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Dr. Zachary Rubin speaks outside Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center on Feb. 19 about infections of patients with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Los Angeles County health officials are attempting to assuage the public’s fears surrounding a deadly outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, saying the episode is “not a threat to public health.”

The hospital disclosed Wednesday that a superbug tied to tainted medical scopes had infected seven people and exposed 179 others.

The infected patients became ill with fever, chills and severe sepsis soon after being treated with the scopes, said Dr. Zachary Rubin, medical director of clinical epidemiology and infection prevention at the medical center. Two of those people later died, officials said.


The bacteria appear to have spread through duodenoscopes, which are placed down a patient’s throat to examine cancer, gallstones and other digestive system issues.

Hospital officials apologized Thursday for “some of the anxiety” the outbreak is causing.

“We get up every morning and come to work to help heal humankind,” said Dr. David Feinberg, president of the UCLA Health System. “When something like this happens, it really just gets us in our gut.”

Feinberg said the hospital has implemented new sterilization procedures that exceed Food and Drug Administration requirements. Since then, no new cases have been discovered.

“I think our procedures today would make us the safest place to have one of these ... life-saving interventions,” Feinberg told reporters Thursday.

The UCLA outbreak involves CRE, or carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. It’s extremely resistant to antibiotics and can kill up to 50% of patients who become infected, according to federal health authorities.

But it isn’t typically transmitted by casual contact outside hospitals and other medical facilities.


However, patients and their families continued to worry about what the outbreak means for them, and some said that UCLA should have alerted them sooner.

Bakersfield resident Sheila Adamczyk said she called her daughter’s doctor Thursday, searching for answers after seeing news of the outbreak.

Her 16-year-old daughter, Bailee, was treated with a scope similar to the ones involved in the outbreak at UCLA, once in October and again in December, related to a cancer screening.

“I want to know what the hell is going on and I want to know right now,” Adamczyk said. “They had two deaths. They knew this had taken place.”

UCLA freshman Sierra Bronkhurst said she also became alarmed after seeing the news. Standing outside the hospital Wednesday night, Bronkhurst said she had been to the hospital a week earlier to see a gastrointestinal specialist.

She immediately did a Google search to find out more, and was quickly relieved.

“They didn’t use any scopes on me,” she said with a nervous laugh.

Amanda Farrand, 32, said she found out about the superbug outbreak the day after she had brought her 3-week-old child to the medical center for a doctor’s appointment.


“I was terrified,” she said, adding that she had feared her baby could be at risk until she read about how the bacteria was spread.

When she returned Thursday to pick up a prescription, she still had some reservations. “Maybe I’ll come back just by myself,” she said.

Staff writers Ryan Menezes and Javier Panzar contributed to this report.

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