1 dead, 5 infected by mold that halted Seattle Children's Hospital surgeries

SEATTLE -- Seattle Children's Hospital has revealed that one patient has died and five others have been infected by a potentially dangerous mold that has forced the medical center to close all of its main operating rooms.

The hospital initially disclosed the infections and death to The Seattle Times Tuesday in response to follow-up questions regarding the closures of four operating rooms on its main Seattle campus May 18 because of Aspergillus mold and of the remaining 10 operating rooms May 24.

The hospital says operating rooms have been infested by mold — off and on — for about a year likely because of deficiencies in the operating rooms' air handling and purification systems.

A hospital spokesperson tells Q13 News that the patient who died was one of three who were infected in 2019.  The other three patients were infected this year.

"We are deeply saddened that one of our patients died after developing an Aspergillus infection in 2018," a statement from Bernal to Q13 News reads.  "Seattle Children’s is committed to maintaining a safe environment for our patients, and we will reopen our operating rooms when we are confident they are safe for patient care."

No other information about the children and their conditions was released.

About 1,000 surgeries have been postponed while other surgeries have been moved to the cardiac catheterization facility on the hospital's main campus in Seattle and its Bellevue campus. Most surgeries have been moved to other area hospitals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said Aspergillus mold can live indoors or outside and that most people breathe it daily without getting sick. But people with weakened immune systems are at a higher risk of developing infections in the lungs or sinuses from the mold. Aspergillosis can range from mild to serious, manifesting as an allergic reaction or infections in the lungs and other organs.

An investigation done in May by Children's found gaps in the air-filtration system believed to be the key contributing factors to the air-quality issue, Bernal wrote in an email. "Outside industrial hygienists" are helping the hospital investigate the source of the mold, she wrote.

Last summer, after air testing at Children's detected the mold in two operating rooms and an equipment-storage room, those rooms were closed for three days and all operating rooms and storage rooms were inspected, Bernal wrote. "At that time, the issue appeared to be confined to the affected rooms and we took appropriate corrective actions," she wrote.

Children's also reached out to Public Health — Seattle & King County, which connected the hospital to the CDC because the federal agency had more expertise dealing with that kind of mold, public health spokesperson James Apa said. The CDC issued no report after it determined Children's was taking appropriate actions to investigate and address the problem, Apa said. Washington state Department of Health investigators also checked out the hospital and offered suggestions on how to improve air quality, which the hospital followed, Bernal wrote.

But the mold returned in 2019. In May, it was detected in four operating rooms and some equipment-storage rooms during a routine check, Bernal said.

After the hospital closed the four operating rooms May 18, some "urgent and less invasive procedures" were performed in the remaining 10 operating rooms, Bernal wrote in an email to The Times Tuesday.

Six days later, those operating rooms were also closed. Bernal said the additional closures were needed so crews could access and fix the hospital's air system. She would not say whether mold was detected in those rooms.

"We will reopen our operating rooms when it is safe to do so," Bernal wrote in an email. Children's has not yet determined when that will be.

Bernal told The Times in May that Children's was contacting 3,000 patients who had surgery in the four months leading up to the May 18 closure and advising them to watch for infection symptoms.