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

St. Joseph's hospital in Vegreville, Alta., was being scrubbed from top to bottom Friday as a team of outside experts began investigating concerns that medical equipment was improperly sterilized.

The cleaning of the beleaguered hospital is part of an effort to stop the spread of an antibiotic-resistant bacterial infectioncalled MRSA, said Jim Durham, a spokesman with East Central Health.

"They started with some of the empty rooms that were there, and they're transferring patients in acute care over to those rooms, and they continue on that throughout the hospital, including the emergency room."

A team fromthe Health Quality Council of Alberta has arrived in Vegreville to look into the superbug outbreak andshortcomings in thehospital's sterilization room, which is now closed.

When the review is complete, the information and recommendations for changes will be made public so patients can regain confidence in the hospital and its procedures, said Dr. John Cowell, the council's chief executive officer.

Dr. Selby Frank, the hospital's chief of staff, told CBC News Fridaythat there are misconceptions about thesize of the problem in the sterilization room. Only the cleaning procedures for certain endoscopes were "not up to standard" and should have been shut down, he said.

"Nobody has ever come to us with an instrument that was un-sterile that went through our unit. The problem was that the procedure being used was probably outmoded, and that's why the unit was shut for improvement."

Hospital going through patient records

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 investigatea superbug outbreak– seven patients in the 25-bed hospital contracted the infection over a one-month period beginning in mid-January –the room was still in operation, so he ordered it shut down.

Both the MRSA outbreak and the problems in the sterilization room came to light Tuesday when the health officer's order was made public.

The hospital is now closed to acute patients and limiting visitors, although the emergency room is open.

Health officials are also 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 surgical equipment that had been inadequately sterilized, advising them to get tested for HIV, as well as hepatitis B and C.

Stelmach defending government actions

The province is appointing a board of management to oversee the Vegreville hospital, but the political fallout from the problems at St. Joseph's continue.

Government critics are attacking Premier Ed Stelmach, who is also MLA for the riding, for his handling of the crisis, but thepremiersaid the opposition parties are fear-mongering and blowing the situation out of proportion.

While some Vegreville residentswant Stelmach to hold a town meeting to explain what's going on, the premier said Thursdaythe people of Vegreville approve of his government's actions.

"The community is confident we moved very quickly and appropriately," he said.

"The situation in St. Joe's is definitely under control. The public health order was posted and the Health Quality Council is following up."

Stelmach added that it was an isolated incident.

But Alberta Liberal Leader Kevin Taft isn't convinced.

"I think it's way too early to conclude that this is not a bigger concern than the premier realizes right now," said Taft.

NDP leader Brian Mason is calling for a public inquiry.

"This may not be limited to one hospital. And it clearly is something that needs to be looked at across the province."