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Emails reveal pest control problems at Haley VA hospital

The infection prevention coordinator, Miriam Ruisz, emailed the VA hospital’s enviro team Thursday about the pest problem.
Published Jun. 20, 2015

TAMPA — It's not the sort of email the infection control director of a veterans hospital wants to find in their inbox — a message with photos of dead rats found in a hospital kitchen.

Workers at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center reported "3 large dead rats that fell through the kitchen ceiling" at the hospital during renovation work Wednesday night, according to emails obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

They then sent color photos of the rats to the facility's infection prevention coordinator, Miriam Ruisz, and also told her about a cockroach infestation, emails show.

"I have . . . been made aware that there is a major roach problem in the kitchen and that some roaches have been found on patients' trays," Ruisz wrote in an email Thursday to the Haley "enviro team," which handles pest control.

Ruisz said she was told workers replacing a canteen ceiling two months ago "filled multiple buckets with roaches, dead rats and feces. . . . Please let me know if there is an ongoing problem with this infestation and what is being done about it. . . .

"We could possibly end up on the news, not to mention risk patient safety."

After "patient safety," Ruisz ended the sentence with an emoticon showing a frowning face.

The infection control chief may not have know about the rat infestation until this week. But other Haley employees did. In fact, emails show that workers have been putting rat traps above ceiling tiles in a kitchen where food is prepared for veterans who are hospital patients.

Haley spokeswoman Karen Collins said in a statement emailed to the Times that the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital, one of the nation's busiest, works hard to provide "the safest and best experience possible" for veterans.

"Being in a tropical, urban environment, we are keenly aware of the potential of, and continually monitor for, any pest control issues," Collins said. "Recently, we observed an uptick in reported pest-related activities. . . .

"We have developed an aggressive and proactive plan to address it."

That included recently awarding a new five-year contract to a pest control firm, she said.

"If an issue is identified, the pest control team responds to eliminate it," Collins said.

The Times reported in 2013 that rat droppings had been found in a Haley storage area containing nursing supplies. But hospital officials said at that time the droppings were from "old rodent activity" and that no ongoing pest problem existed.

Internal emails and other documents indicate Haley officials now face a pest problem in at least two areas of the hospital.

The first is in the facility kitchen on the first floor of the main hospital building that prepares food served to veterans. This is where the rats were found. The second area involves a smaller kitchen on the second floor at the hospital canteen, where veterans, employees and visitors can buy food.

In an email to Ruisz and other hospital officials Thursday, Ellen Tolson, who works in Haley nutrition services, said the hospital had hired new pest control contractors who "treated for roaches" on June 10. Tolson said they were going to be back at the facility Thursday night after the latest reports of problems.

A pest control contractor insisted to Tolson that he did not see evidence in the main kitchen of an active roach infestation due to a lack of roach droppings, according to Tolson's email. The email did not appear to address the canteen kitchen.

"Initially, he did not feel there was feces at all," Tolson said. "But I continued to ask him about every speck I could find until we possibly found one that was feces-like. Despite finding this possible feces-like dirt, he still did not think there is an active issue because there was no 'shine' to the questionable dirt we found."

As for the bigger pests, Tolson wrote in the email, the three dead rats and a dead mouse were "all found in the ceiling above our ingredient control room" in the main hospital kitchen.

Tolson said she asked employees who work on Haley's ceiling fire sprinklers about "rodent issues" in the main kitchen. They reported seeing, she said, live rats inside the traps.

"They told me, while working in the kitchen since June 4, they have found multiple rodent traps in our ceiling, and they also told me that they have seen 'eyes' looking back at them when up in the ceiling in the corner of the kitchen looking back toward the vending area," Tolson said.

The basement crawl space under the kitchen appears to be filthy and strewn with bugs and debris, according to photos of the area obtained by the Times that were taken in December by VA contractors.

Haley safety and infection control officials warned VA employees in late 2014 via email that anyone entering this basement area should wear gloves, a full-face respirator and a full-body protective suit.

Haley officials insisted in 2013 that their pest control plan eliminated any fears of an infestation.

At the time, a spokeswoman said: "The plan is working."

Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

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