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caption: Seattle Children's Hospital
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Seattle Children's Hospital
Credit: KUOW Photo / John Ryan

Fungus detected at Seattle Children's, prompting operating room closures

A potentially harmful fungus has been detected at Seattle Children’s Hospital, prompting officials to shut down affected operating rooms.

Air tests last weekend detected the mold, known as Aspergillus fumigata. The mold showed up in four of 14 operating rooms and one supply room on the hospital’s main campus in northeast Seattle, according to hospital officials.

“Aspergillus is a common mold often present in the air we breathe,” a hospital statement said. "However, in rare instances it can cause complications for surgical patients. Though we believe the risk to our patients is very low, we will be contacting our surgical patients who may have been exposed.”

Hospital officials said they would be notifying the families of nearly 3,000 young patients who have had surgery there in the past four months.

The hospital is postponing 20 to 50 surgeries a day--the vast majority of surgeries performed daily there. Other cases have been diverted to the hospital’s Bellevue campus.

"We're trying to only do the cases that we feel are incredibly low risk or have some component of urgency to them," Mark Del Beccaro, Children's chief medical officer, said.

“We will also perform some cases in areas of our hospital that have been determined to be clear of Aspergillus, like our cardiac catheterization facility,” the statement said. “We are working with an outside industrial hygienist to investigate the source of the Aspergillus.”

The state department of health has been notified.

The statement said all affected operating rooms will remain closed until the hospital is “confident that the areas are clear of Aspergillus.”

Aspergillus causes an infection known as aspergillosis.

One Children's patient has contracted the disease in the past month and is in stable condition, according to hospital officials.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe the mold as common but potentially lethal to people with weakened immune systems. It is the leading cause of invasive mold infections, with 300,000 cases a year, according to the CDC.

Antifungal drugs can knock back Aspergillus. That treatment, though, can last months, and some strains of the fungus have become resistant to antibiotics.

Agricultural use of fungicides to treat crop diseases has led to the growth of resistant strains of Aspergillus in the soil and air, according to the CDC.

Children's officials are investigating possible sources of the fungus in the hospital's operating rooms.

Outside the main entrance to Children's, large fans push air back toward a neighboring construction site, where a new hospital building is going up.

"The fans are only a partial defense," Del Beccaro said. "The real defense is the air filtration system, which brings the air in, and they're designed to remove everything down to 1 to 2 micron in size, which is enough to capture the spores."

He said the hospital's industrial hygienist considered it unlikely that soil from the construction site was the source of the Aspergillus, but it hasn't been ruled out.

So far, the hospital's investigation hasn't found any water damage or problems in its air-filtration systems that might have let the mold grow where it shouldn't have.

Patient families with questions are invited to call Seattle Children’s patient and family relations team at 206 987-1061.

KOMO’s Jennifer Sullivan first reported the story.

caption: Giant fans push air away from an entrance to Seattle Children's Hospital. A sign on the fans says, "Please keep fans on during weekday construction hours."
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Giant fans push air away from an entrance to Seattle Children's Hospital. A sign on the fans says, "Please keep fans on during weekday construction hours."
Credit: KUOW Photo / John Ryan

This story has been updated.