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St. Joseph's General Hospital in Vegreville has restricted the number of visitors because of an outbreak of MRSA. ((CBC News) )

Alberta's health ministeris appointing a board of management to oversee a rural hospitalthat was improperly sterilizing medicalequipment.

Dave HancocksaidWednesday in the legislature that experts would be brought into St. Joseph's General Hospital in Vegreville underprovisions of Alberta's Hospitals Act.

"If that board of management is not successful in making sure thatwe can have total assurance of the quality of management and operation of that facility, then a supervisor can be appointed," the minister said.

Health officialsare now checking records of patients back to April 2003.

Although they say the risk to patients is low, they are sending letters to those who were exposed to surgicalequipment that had been inadequately sterilized, advising them to get tested for HIV, as well as hepatitis B and C.

Hospital told to close sterilization room in February

St. Joseph's didn't close its sterilization room until Friday, despite month-oldorders from health officials warning that medical equipment had not been properly cleaned.

The sterilization room was supposed to be shut on Feb. 13 after a routine surgical audit uncovered problems.

But when the region's medical health officer went to the hospital last Friday to investigate a superbug outbreak, the room was still in operation, so he ordered it shut down.

"We found that indeed there was some activity going on that shouldn't have been going on," Steve Petz, the CEO of East Central Health, said Tuesday after the hospital's woes were made public.

Alberta Liberal health critic Laurie Blakeman wants to know why the sterilization room wasn't closed sooner.

"What's going on?"she said."Either there isn't enough monitoring in place that something would be in violation for a month or they didn't have… the manpower or the willpower to be able to enforce any kind of order."

Vegreville residents 'disgusted'

Dr. Gerhard Benadé, the region's medical health officer, discovered the sterilization room was still operating while investigating an outbreak among seven patients in the 25-bed hospital of methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA.

The hospital is now closed to new patients. Emergency and acute-care patients, aswell as medicalequipment requiring sterilization,are being sent to other nearby hospitals.

In Vegreville, a town of 5,500, people are asking questions.

"It should have been done properly, as far as I'm concerned," said Art Web, who showed up at the hospital Tuesday to discover it closed to new patients. "There's negligence on the part of somebody there."

Shannon Goffinet has a five-year-old son who often needs to use the community's hospital.

"I'm disgusted and I really think the government needs to do something about this because we pay enough for our health care and we are not getting the results that we need," she said.

No routine inspections by official

Hancock said it's up to the province's health regions to ensure surgical equipment is being properly sanitized. But Benadé said it's not part of his job as medical health officer to do routine inspections of sanitization rooms.

Petz, the head of the health region, said the operator of the hospital should be doing routine inspections.

"We contract to St. Joseph's to provide services. In the health world there are standards and protocols and procedures. Our contracts manage those," he said.

Ina statementWednesday morning, Orest Berezan, chairmanof the hospital's board, said the board took full responsibility "for ensuring that the necessary and appropriate safety standards and procedures are in place" and is taking steps to improve the hospital.

"Unfortunately, our desire for the achievement of high standards has not been met. To ensure we do not face a similar situation again, St. Joseph’s is undertaking a full investigation to determine why the necessary measures and procedures were not in place."

Premier's riding

St. Joseph's is located in Ed Stelmach's riding, and the premier said he is already hearing from his constituents.

"They're my constituents. It's right smack in the middle of my constituency," he said.

"Of course they're concerned, but they're also, I'm sure, satisfied in the fact that proper procedures have been taken."

The Health Quality Council of Alberta will review the problems at the hospitaland passalong its findings to the health minister, but it's unclear how long that will take.