Fly outbreak halts VA surgeries

Haley, the nation's busiest VA hospital, cancels non-emergency surgery. Spoiled food in a locker is blamed.

Published August 19, 2006

TAMPA - The nation's busiest Veterans Affairs hospital canceled some surgeries this week due to an outbreak of flies.

The James A. Haley VA Medical Center closed its operating room suite after the flies were seen on Tuesday, said hospital spokeswoman Carolyn Clark.

Non-emergency surgeries were canceled and are being rescheduled, Clark said in a written statement.

"In spite of minimal risk to patients, the facility did not want to subject patients to additional risk, however small it may be," the statement said.

The suite continues to operate on a reduced schedule while the hospital conducts a thorough review, as well as maintenance and cleaning, Clark said.

Clark did not provide details about how many surgeries were canceled or the extent of the infestation.

Hospital officials think spoiled food from an employee's locker attracted the flies. An e-mail was sent to hospital employees this week informing them of new regulations regarding food and beverages.

Food and drink, with the exception of water, is now banned from most of the second floor of the hospital - where the operating room suite is located - with the exception of the patient dining room and canteen.

"Medical center personnel are to ensure that food and drink are not left out in the open and are stored properly," the e-mail read. "Employees are encouraged to assist in this endeavor, and are authorized to discard any food and drink that may attract pests."

The flies are just the latest in a series of problems at the hospital, including recent allegations that staff members failed to ensure cranial implants used in two surgeries were sterilized.

In February, the Veterans Affairs Department confirmed it was investigating Haley over charges of poor patient care and a questionable contract with the University of South Florida to provide surgeons.

Rep. Michael Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, who chairs a House subcommittee on VA oversight and investigations, said he plans to monitor the hospital's efforts to resolve the fly problem.

"I'm obviously concerned about the impact this situation may have had on veterans," Bilirakis said in a statement Friday. "However, I was encouraged to learn that the facility took immediate action to correct the problem and minimize any risk to veterans."

Haley is off Bruce B. Downs Boulevard in North Tampa. Its polytrauma unit is one of only four in the VA system that specializes in treatment of a new generation of combat injuries caused by improvised explosive devices commonly seen in Iraq.

This is not the first time a VA hospital has faced difficulties with flies. In 2001, the Kansas City VA Medical Center was investigated for sanitation problems that led to infestations of both mice and flies.

The lapses were blamed on shortages in housekeeping staff and construction issues, according to a VA inspector general's report.

Flies generally don't pose much of a risk to hospital patients, said Dr. John Sinnott, clinical director of the Signature Program in Allergy, Immunology and Infectious Disease at the University of South Florida College of Medicine.

A fly's life span in a hospital is too short to create any problems, he said.

"In any building, you can have bugs," Sinnott said. "The means used to contain these insects in hospitals are quite effective and very potent."

Staff writer Paul de la Garza contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.