NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - The Tennessee clinic that received more potentially tainted steroid than any facility in the nation has been closed temporarily as it struggles to cope with an avalanche of patient calls about the deadly meningitis outbreak, its administrator said.
The Saint Thomas Outpatient Neurosurgery Center in Nashville received 2,000 vials of the steroid from a Massachusetts company. The drug was shipped to 76 facilities in 23 states.
Twenty people have died, including three at the hospital where the clinic is located, and 254 contracted fungal meningitis traced to vials from New England Compounding Center used mainly for epidural injections to ease back pain.
Tennessee has more confirmed cases than any other state. The Nashville clinic was one of the first to notice its patients were suffering from severe headaches and other symptoms.
The clinic, which administered about 5,000 epidural injections a year for back pain, closed on September 20 and has not reopened.
“We started out with 300 phone calls a day and now we are getting 40 or 50. As long as these phone calls are coming in, we are not comfortable to be open,” Scott Butler, administrator of the clinic, said in an interview on Wednesday.
“I would never want somebody who called in, in pain, to be told ‘We’re working here. We’ll call you back,'” Butler said.
It is still not clear how much of the clinic’s medication was tainted with a fungus.
The Tennessee Department of Health said 477 of the 2,520 vials shipped to three facilities in the state, including Saint Thomas clinic, were not used. This suggests that all but about 20 percent of the supply was administered to patients.
Butler said he could not comment on the clinic’s relationship with NECC. The Massachusetts pharmacy compounder faces multiple investigations including whether it broke state and federal laws by shipping medications in bulk.
The outbreak has been stressful for patients and the clinic’s 15 employees.
“It has been one of the most emotionally taxing things on these employees over there, simply because every patient they are talking to is scared and in pain. It has been very tough,” Butler said.
It has hurt the business of the clinic, which continues to pay its employees while as the facility remains closed.
It has also hurt the business of the clinic, which has continued to pay its employees full-time even as the facility remains closed and has received unwanted publicity.
The clinic is on the ninth floor of a building adjacent to Saint Thomas Hospital, which has sought to distance itself from the clinic since the outbreak, even though the two share some common ownership and part of the same name.
“The only center that received the tainted steroids was the ninth-floor Outpatient Neurosurgery Center, which is separate from the hospital or any other outpatient center on the Saint Thomas campus,” Saint Thomas Hospital Dr. Robert Latham said last Friday in a briefing hosted by the Tennessee Health Department.
Saint Thomas Network, which owns Saint Thomas Hospital and other hospitals in Tennessee, also is a part owner of the clinic through a joint venture with Howell Allen Clinic.
The Tennessee Health Department said the clinic has been helpful in its efforts to investigate the outbreak and is free to reopen. But Butler said that will not happen soon.
“Obviously it’s hurting business. Our concern right now is taking care of the patients. As we get down the road, we’ll worry about the business,” Butler said.
Editing by Greg McCune and Stacey Joyce