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Staph Infections Kill Women Prisoners In Pennsylvania; Coroner’s Office Raided

By Michael Rigby

Three female prisoners have died after contracting a deadly strain of Staph infection while confined in Pennsylvania jails. All of the deaths occurred in March 2005. Two of the women, originally said to have inhaled toxic fumes while cleaning one of the jails, died within hours of each other.

Angel L. Powell, 33, became seriously ill while imprisoned in the Burlington County Minimum Security Facility. She was rushed to a local hospital on March 2, 2005, but it was too late. She died the next day. An autopsy revealed that Powell died from pneumonia caused by Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, or MRSA. Powell was the sixth Burlington County prisoner in a year to become infected. Prisoners in other Burlington County jail facilities have also contracted MRSA, health officials said.

MRSA is a particularly virulent strain of Staphylococcus Aureus, a bacteria that most commonly causes skin lesions but can also lead to skin and bone infections and pneumonia. Originally found most often in hospitals, MRSA is now “clearly an epidemic” in community settings, the New England Journal of Medicine reported in April 2005. The Journal noted that MRSA infections are fatal in 20 to 25 percent of patients.

Because MRSA is passed through contact with contaminated surfaces or skin, jails and prisons nationwide have battled outbreaks over the past few years.

The MRSA epidemic is especially evident at the Allegheny County Jail in Pennsylvania, where two female prisoners contracted the infection and died within hours of each other.

On Friday, March 18, 2005, Amy Sartori, 21, and Valeriya Whetsell, 50, had been assigned to a cleaning detail at the Allegheny County Jail. Sartori took ill on Saturday and went to the jail infirmary. She was later transported to Mercy Hospital, where she died Sunday at 7:31 p.m. Whetsell became ill on Sunday. Like Santori, Whetsell was treated at the jail infirmary before being taken to the same hospital, where she died shortly after 4:00 a.m. Monday.

At a news conference held on March 21, the day of Whetsell’s death, Allegheny County Coroner Dr. Cyril H. Wecht quickly proclaimed the women had died from asphyxiation caused by inhaling toxic fumes produced from mixing cleaning products. On April 8, however, Dr. Wecht admitted the deaths had been caused by something entirely different—MRSA. Additional tests revealed that the women had the flu, then contracted MRSA, which led to their deaths.

The Coroner’s new findings prompted the jail to enact measures to improve cleanliness, according to Chuck Mandarino, president of the Allegheny County Independent Prison Employees Union. Mandarino said the jail will replace damaged mattresses and other items that are difficult to sanitize, add an extra shift of laundry workers to wash prisoner clothing more often, and issue all prisoners an extra set of clothing to reduce the number of days they must wear the same outer clothes.

Many of the guards inquired about the infections and asked why it took two weeks to determine the cause of the women’s deaths, Mandarino said. He further noted that the union is concerned about the poor communication with medical personnel at the jail. “The problem is the medical department hasn’t been totally forthcoming,” he said. “They’re uncooperative at best and way too secretive.”

Four guards who came in contact with the women may also have contracted the infection. “I have four officers that say they were working in the vicinity and developed some symptoms, flu-like symptoms,” said Warden Ramon Bustin. “I think they’re concerned that it could be related” to the deaths of Whetsell and Sartori.

In a strange twist, roughly a dozen FBI agents stormed the Allegheny County Coroner’s Office on April 9, 2005, seizing computers and log books and questioning at least six employees. Around the same time, another team of federal agents swept into Dr. Wecht’s private law firm and seized autopsy files. The raid, which began at around 9 a.m., was apparently part of an investigation into whether Dr. Wecht illegally commingled his public and private business. David Armstrong, who is representing the coroner’s office, said the agents executed two search warrants, both of which had been sealed by a judge. Armstrong declined to release documents detailing the seized items.

PLN reports extensively on MRSA and other health issues in prisons and jails. See indexes for more.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Burlington County Times, Associated Press

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