5 Pasco jail inmates sue, claim nurse exposed them to contaminated insulin

The diabetic patients accuse the nurse of failing to follow sterile needle and syringe practices. Her employer said she no longer works for the company.
Kevin Conway and Ashlie Case Sletvold, of Peiffer Wolf, speak to reporters via Zoom about a lawsuit alleging that Pasco County Jail inmates received infected insulin over the course of a year.
Kevin Conway and Ashlie Case Sletvold, of Peiffer Wolf, speak to reporters via Zoom about a lawsuit alleging that Pasco County Jail inmates received infected insulin over the course of a year. [ Screenshot via Zoom ]
Published Jan. 20, 2022|Updated Jan. 20, 2022

Five current Pasco County Jail inmates have filed a class-action lawsuit against a health care contractor at the facility and two employees, alleging that a nurse failed to follow sterile needle practices when injecting patients with insulin — potentially exposing them to bloodborne illnesses such as HIV.

The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in the Middle District of Florida, alleges that Rachel McCarthy, a registered nurse employed by Wellpath LLC — a private, national health care company contracted by the Pasco County Jail — failed to change needles between vials when injecting patients with partial insulin doses from two different vials, thereby contaminating the second insulin container. The lawsuit also names registered nurse Renee Bingham, Wellpath’s health services administrator at the jail, saying she failed to adequately train and supervise medical personnel, and that she told them not to discuss the potential insulin contamination incident.

Court records did not list an attorney for McCarthy as of Wednesday afternoon. A Times reporter was not able to reach McCarthy via phone numbers associated with her name.

Wellpath spokesperson Judy Lilley said in a statement that McCarthy’s employment had been terminated, and that the company denied allegations against Bingham. Lilley said Bingham was quick to report the allegations against McCarthy to Wellpath and the proper state authorities in Florida.

“All appropriate patient follow-up was provided, including testing and use of prophylactic medications,” Lilley said in the statement. “We are not aware of any clinical patient complications.”

Pasco County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Amanda Hunter said the Sheriff’s Office is aware of the complaint and began working with Wellpath to address the issue after they found out about the allegations.

“We are taking the reported complaint very seriously, and will continue to work with Wellpath regarding investigation of this matter and steps to ensure a situation like this does not happen in the future,” Hunter said.

So far, none of the named plaintiffs has been diagnosed with a bloodborne illness since they raised concerns about potential insulin contamination, but they “reasonably fear that their exposure to contaminated insulin may result in disease,” the lawsuit said. They are suing on behalf of all patients who have received at least one insulin injection from the time McCarthy’s employment at the county jail began in January 2021 through Tuesday, when the lawsuit was filed.

The inmates are being represented by a national law firm, Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane Conway & Wise.

According to the lawsuit, McCarthy drew up the remaining contents of a vial of insulin into a syringe in order to inject a partial dosage of insulin in an HIV-positive patient at the jail earlier this month. She then used the same syringe and needle to draw up the rest of the patient’s insulin dosage from a new vial before injecting the inmate a second time. The lawsuit claims that, by reusing the needle, McCarthy contaminated a vial that would be used for other patients’ dosages as well.

Following the incident in early January, “one or more affected patients” submitted grievances, according to the lawsuit. During questioning by supervisors, McCarthy said she had administered insulin doses using the same needle between vials during the entire course of her roughly yearlong employment at the jail, the lawsuit alleges.

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If a health care worker is going to use partial doses from two insulin vials, safe practice involves changing needles and syringes between vials so as to not contaminate the new vial, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In the lawsuit, the plaintiff’s attorneys accuse Wellpath of only testing for bloodborne illnesses in some of the patients who may have been impacted, not all of them. The lawsuit further alleges that Wellpath only administered post-exposure prophylactic medications to prevent HIV to some of the inmates who may have been impacted, not all of them. In addition, the lawsuit claims, jail personnel did not tell inmates who were given the HIV prevention medications why they were receiving those medications or get their informed consent.

Wellpath employees also gave a hepatitis vaccine or booster to some of the inmates potentially exposed through contaminated insulin, but not all of them, attorneys for the plaintiffs said in the lawsuit.

“It’s unbelievable, and it’s truly a public health crisis,” Kevin Conway, a partner at Peiffer Wolf, said during a news conference Wednesday. “This could be just such a wide-reaching problem that has potential to spread.”