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Governor signs bills to prevent staph outbreaks

The measures require hospitals to strengthen efforts to fight spread of bacteria and to reveal infection rates.

September 26, 2008|Jordan Rau | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — With patients facing increasing threats from antibiotic-resistant "super bugs," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Thursday signed two measures requiring California hospitals to strengthen their efforts at preventing staph outbreaks and to reveal to the public their rates of infection.

The move was a reversal for the governor, who vetoed similar legislation four years ago. Since then, concerns about the growth of these bacteria -- and state inspections finding that some hospitals were not preventing their spread -- have made infections a top public health priority.

Hospitals have had an especially tough time combating strains like methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. The bacteria can spread from patient to patient through unsterile clothing, ventilation systems, surgical equipment or room furnishings. If they get into a patient's body, they can be fatal.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 2 million patients nationwide contract an infection each year, and about 100,000 die. State health officials estimate that between 5% and 10% of patients in California hospitals develop infections, often through catheters, IV lines and ventilators or during surgery. Treating those sicknesses costs about $3.1 billion a year.

One of the new laws requires high-risk patients to be tested for MRSA within 24 hours of admission. The bill, SB 1058 by Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), also requires hospitals to beef up their infection control rules and report to the state their infection rates. Those will be put on the Department of Public Health website starting in 2011.

The second bill, SB 158 by Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), bolsters the public health department's surveillance efforts of hospitals and requires doctors and other medical professionals at hospitals to be trained in preventing the spread of infections.

Betsy Imholz, an advocate at Consumers Union, said the new laws will help public health officials get a handle on the extent of the spread of these bacteria.

"We don't even know the extent of the problem in California," she said.

In 2004, Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill, writing that state and industry efforts to scrutinize hospital infection programs were working. "This calls into question the need of a new program to address this issue," he wrote, adding that the costs of compliance might be too onerous for some hospitals.

In his statement Thursday announcing his signature on the latest bills, Schwarzenegger wrote:

"These important measures will help save lives and healthcare dollars by reducing the number of infections that people are exposed to while staying in the hospital."

Carole Moss, a Riverside County resident whose 15-year-old son, Nile, died in 2006 of an infection contracted in a hospital, said too many facilities and physicians have refused to recognize that infections can be avoided.

"There's a few that have made it a priority, but the attitude across the board is that infections are in hospitals and that's what happens," said Moss, who pressed for the bills in Sacramento.

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jordan.rau@latimes.com

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