ST. PETERSBURG — The sudden death of an All Children's Hospital therapist thought to have a dangerous bloodstream infection that can cause meningitis triggered a wave of concern Wednesday around Tampa Bay.
Public health officials said the woman, a Hillsborough County resident, was treated at Tampa General Hospital, where she died Monday. The Hillsborough Health Department has reached out to about two dozen of her friends and close contacts, offering them antibiotics to guard against a potential outbreak.
Meanwhile, laboratory cultures confirmed Wednesday that the infection was Neisseria meningitidis, said Dr. Juan Dumois, director of pediatric infectious diseases at All Children's.
While the infection can be fatal — even before it crosses from the bloodstream to cause brain inflammation — it is less contagious than the common cold. It is spread by kissing, sharing drinking glasses or coughing near another person.
Some patients and hospital employees were unhappy that All Children's did not do a better job sharing information with them. Hospital officials learned Tuesday of the employee's death and began contacting patients who might have been exposed.
It was not until Wednesday morning, after an article had published in the St. Petersburg Times, that the hospital posted notes to staffers and patients.
"Communication is one of those things that you can always do better," said hospital spokeswoman Ann Miller, explaining that officials thought it best for supervisors to talk with staffers.
By Wednesday, hospital officials had reached the families of 11 patients the therapist saw March 21 and 22, the last days she was at the hospital's outpatient center. On March 23 and 24, she attended a conference at All Children's Speciality Care of Tampa.
Colleagues at the conference are among more than 50 All Children's employees at risk for exposure, Miller said. All have been contacted and, when appropriate, offered antibiotic treatment.
Hospital and public health officials declined to release further details about the woman, whose identity is protected under federal health laws concerning patient confidentiality.
The first time officials even knew the therapist was sick was when she called in Monday — hours before her death — with what she thought was the flu.
But it is only transmitted through close personal contact, namely exposure to saliva. While it's possible she caught the infection while treating a child, Dumois said the therapist saw children under age 15, who are less likely to carry the organism than older teens and young adults.
He said flu-like symptoms are common at the onset of infection, which can become fatal within days or even hours. A later warning sign: a purple rash.
All Children's officials, as well as public health officials in Pinellas and Hillsborough, say they have received no further reports of this illness.
Letitia Stein can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3322.