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Nine stricken with mystery illness at Rogersville health clinic

JEFFBOBO • Nov 8, 2017 at 5:48 PM

ROGERSVILLE — Investigators were trying to determine what caused nine employees at a Rogersville health clinic to suffer a sudden illness Wednesday afternoon after being exposed to a patient emanating a chemical odor.

Shortly before 3:30 p.m., staff at the Hawkins County Rural Health Consortium on Route 66 reported a mass illness.

Hawkins County EMA Director Gary Murrell said a 52-year-old male came in for a regularly scheduled appointment when all of a sudden multiple staff members fell unconscious.

By the time police, fire and EMS personnel arrived, three employees had to be taken by ambulance to Hawkins County Memorial Hospital, and another six reportedly transported themselves to the emergency room.

“We don’t have a clue what we’re dealing with,” Murrell told the Times-News. “The symptoms are nausea, vomiting, dizziness, lightheadedness, and one went into a seizure. A bunch of different issues are going on with these patients, and nothing is adding up to what we thought it might have been.”

Rogersville Police Department Assistant Chief Travis Fields said the patient indicated he had been stripping the floors at his house using bleach and a cleaner prior to coming to the clinic. It was a regular scheduled doctor’s appointment and not an urgent care situation, Fields noted.

“A physicians assistant was seeing a patient who had a strong odor of something coming from him,” Fields said. “Of the three people transported to the hospital, two of them were doing OK, and one of them was still having seizures and having some medical issues. At this time, we still don’t know the cause.”

HCMH President Rebecca Beck told the Times-News that as of shortly before 8 p.m., all nine patients had been treated and released. Contrary to early reports, the hospital wasn’t closed after the nine patients arrived, although they were segregated from others in the facility until they were decontaminated.

Making the mystery even more puzzling is the fact that the male patient wasn’t experiencing those same symptoms. Murrell said the patient had not been affected the way consortium staff were, nor was his mother, with whom he resides in Rogersville.

Fields added, “We’ve searched his residence, and we’ve not found anything chemical that would cause something like this to happen. HAZMAT is checking the building and places where he was at to see if they can figure out what happened. He is at the police department voluntarily, and he is cooperating with us, and he will be submitting to some swabs as part of our investigation.”

Police also searched his house and found nothing suspicious. Fields said the male patient isn’t suspected of any wrongdoing at this time.

Murrell said Kingsport firefighters arrived at the HCMH around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday to conduct testing there to see if a cause of the illness could be detected. 

Beck told the Times-News she’s not aware of the HCMH ever receiving as many as nine patients at one time from a single emergency event. But she said training paid off, and the facility was able to treat all nine patients without going on diversion.

“We were still accepting patients,” Beck said. “We were able to utilize staff from other parts of the facility to take care of patients that were in the ED and any others that came in from the decontamination event. We received nine patients. Those nine patients were taken through the appropriate decontamination process, and those patients have since been discharged from the hospital.” 

Beck added, “Our staff mobilized very quickly. We had our instant command center up and running, and we followed all of our processes just as we had prepared for in the disaster drills that we do periodically for situations such as this.”