Hospitals in Four States Warn of Possible Exposure to Hepatitis, HIV

(CNN)The investigation started when someone allegedly saw a surgical tech slip a syringe filled with a powerful pain medication off a cart in a Colorado operating room.

Now, it's extended to include hospitals in at least three other states.

In Colorado, Arizona, California and Washington, nearly 5,000 patients have been told they could have been exposed to hepatitis B, hepatitis C or HIV when they underwent surgery. The notices advising patients to get tested have sparked concern and threats of legal action.

The hospitals involved -- at least six, according to CNN's latest tally -- have one thing in common: a surgical tech was once on their staff who's accused of swapping out syringes full of the liquid painkiller fentanyl and possibly putting patients' safety at risk.

Rocky Allen, 28, has been indicted on charges of tampering with a consumer product and obtaining a controlled substance by deceit, federal officials announced last month. He's pleaded not guilty in federal court in Colorado. The case is set to go to trial in August.

Since the alleged incident at Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colorado, first came to light in February, a number of hospitals where Allen worked before say they've been reaching out to patients.

This week, two hospitals in Washington said they were notifying patients and advising them to get tested.

Northwest Hospital & Medical Center in Seattle said it had contacted about 1,340 patients. And Lakewood Surgery Center in Lakewood, Washington, said it was notifying about 135 patients.

Both hospitals said they had no evidence that patients had been exposed, that the risk was "extremely low" and that they were notifying people out of an abundance of caution.

"We recently learned that a surgical technologist employed briefly at Lakewood Surgery Center during late 2011 has been accused of diverting injectable narcotics in California, Arizona and Colorado, and has been charged with criminal activity relating to this alleged diversion in Colorado," the center said in a statement on its website.

Now, the hospitals said, local and state health authorities in Washington are also investigating.

"We are deeply saddened that the actions of a former employee may have placed our patients at risk, and we understand the concern this notification may cause our patients and their loved ones," Northwest Hospital said in a statement on its website.

The indictment filed in a Colorado federal court accuses Allen of tampering with a syringe containing pain medication and knowingly acquiring the medication "by deception and subterfuge."

Allen did so, officials allege, "with reckless disregard for the risk that another person will be placed in danger of bodily injury, and under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to such risk."

Investigators haven't released details about what allegedly transpired but have said a criminal investigation into Allen's conduct is ongoing.

His federal public defender has not responded to CNN's requests for comment.

According to The Denver Post, attorney Timothy O'Hara told the court last month that his client's drug problems began when he served in the Navy.

"Every day, death was sitting and laying before him," O'Hara said, describing the 12-hour shifts Allen worked during his 10-month deployment.

"As one can imagine, he did not return the same way he went," O'Hara said. "He received a general discharge based on an incident that occurred while he was in the armed forces relating to similar conduct."

Citing a Navy spokeswoman, the Denver newspaper reported that Allen was court-martialed in 2011 for stealing fentanyl while deployed with an Army unit in Afghanistan.

According to Colorado state regulators, Allen allegedly removed a syringe containing the pain medication fentanyl from an anesthesia cart and replaced it with another labeled syringe "in the beginning stages of a surgical procedure" on January 22. Prosecutors say the replacement syringe contained another substance.

Allen's urine later tested positive for fentanyl, regulators said in an order suspending his licensein January.

Court documents filed by federal prosecutors also indicate that Allen was placed on administrative leave while working at a California hospital after allegedly switching syringes in an operating room and hiding a syringe full of fentanyl inside his sock, and that he was terminated from a job at an Arizona hospital after testing positive for the drug.

An attorney in Colorado has said two of his clients, who underwent surgery at Swedish Medical Center, have tested positive for hepatitis B. But health officials haven't yet confirmed any infections.

In 2009, a surgical technician at another Colorado hospital infected 19 patients with hepatitis C after she injected herself with syringes that held their pain medication, then replaced the pain medication in their syringes with saline. Kristen Diane Parker pleaded guilty to a number of federal charges and was sentenced to 30 years in prison.

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