MRSA in newborns on Prince Edward Island: HA? CA? Matters?

There’s been a running story for several weeks now about the Queen Elizabeth Hospital on Prince Edward Island (home to mussels and Anne of Green Gables). The hospital struggled earlier this year with an outbreak of MRSA and a second outbreak of VRE among adult patients. It got those under control, but since earlier this month has been dealing with a new outbreak of MRSA in its newborn nursery, according to the PEI Guardian:

Nine newborns and one mother have now tested positive for MRSA. Five of those nine cases can be connected to the same source. (Byline: Wayne Thibodeau)

The stories are detailed, for a small paper — they go into depth about the cleaning measures the hospital is taking — and yet they don’t answer the questions that we here want to know. Does “tested positive” mean colonized or infected? Does “connected to the same source” mean they all have the same strain, or does it mean there is an epidemiologic link?

In the latest news (Tuesday’s paper and online edition), the hospital reports that it is doing nasal swabs on more than 300 staff, with the intention to do a 7-day decolonization regimen on anyone who turns up positive. They won’t however, disclose the source when they find it — though, again, it’s not clear whether that means not identifying the staffer (appropriate) or not admitting that it is a nosocomial outbreak (inappropriate and at this stage lacking in credibility):

Rick Adams, CEO of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, said about 290 staffers have already been screened.
“In terms of the test results, we’re not going to be making anything public,’’ Adams told The Guardian.
“We want to make sure the environment here is supportive of staff and create a climate where they can feel comfortable and open to come forward and be screened knowing that any results will be kept strictly confidential.’’
Adams said he realizes a solid argument can be made that the public should be informed if the source is found and that source is a staff member.
But he said the public should also realize the hospital is doing everything it can to prevent a further spread of the superbug.
“The staff are under enormous pressure. They feel like they are under a microscope.’’ (Byline: Wayne Thibodeau)

Some readers may know that it is outbreaks among newborns that have demonstrated that the designations “community-associated” and “hospital-acquired” are passing out of usefulness. There have been several MRSA outbreaks in newborns and their mothers in the US (in New York City, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston again because Baylor College of Medicine has been particularly alert to this) that were clearly nosocomial, and yet when the microbiology was done, were found to be caused by community strains.

Why does this matter? Well, for the PEI hospital, it may not: They have an outbreak, it appears to be nosocomial in nature, and whether it is HA left over from their earlier outbreak, or CA that came in via a health care worker or a pregnant woman, mostly affects what drugs they give the children and mothers if those patients do in fact have infections. And for those of us who are primarily concerned with nosocomial infections, the distinction may also feel not-relevant: Failures of infection control are failures of infection control and should not happen period full stop.

But for those of us who are are also interested in the natural history of this perplexing bug, the answer to what is going on at the Queen Elizabeth will be an important piece of information, because it could underline that the distinction between HA and CA is becoming increasingly artificial. The epidemics are converging.


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