Outbreak of VRE at Thunder Bay hospital affects 5 wards, visitor restrictions in place

An outbreak of an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Vancomycin Resistant Enterococci (VRE), continues to affect five separate wards of the Thunder Regional Health Sciences Centre. The outbreak is leading to some visitor restrictions.

Hospital had difficulty controlling antibiotic-resistant bacteria because of concurrent influenza outbreak

The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre has some precautionary restrictions in place. (Nicole Ireland/CBC)
The Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre is restricting visitors to the hospital because it is currently dealing with an outbreak. Dr. Greg Gamble is the Infectious Disease Specialist at the hospital. 7:37

An outbreak of an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, Vancomycin Resistant Enterococci (VRE), continues to affect five separate wards of the Thunder Regional Health Sciences Centre.

"When we talk about outbreak, we're not talking about infection with this organism. What we're talking about is that people who come into the hospital without the organism, come out of the hospital colonized with the organism," says Dr. Greg Gamble, the hospital's infectious disease specialist.

Gamble stressed that VRE is seldom harmful to healthy people, and most won't even know they have it. The problem is that carriers of the bacteria can spread it to those with weakened immune systems.

'No need to worry'

Identifying carriers is important in order to prevent the spread of VRE if the colonized person is readmitted to hospital and "it also gives us a little bit of inside knowledge should that person develop an infection in the future we would be able to anticipate that VRE was the cause of that infection," explained Gamble.

But "there's no need to worry," he said. "We do have antibiotics, should someone ever become infected, we can treat them".

Although Gamble acknowledged that since vancomycin is a commonly used antibiotic, "without that tool in our tool kit, it's a little more challenging to deal with."

This is the first time the facility has dealt with such a widespread outbreak of VRE.

Influenza stressed infection control practices

Gamble blamed the influenza virus currently making the rounds in the northwestern Ontario city for the hospital's difficulty in bringing the VRE outbreak under control.

"We had a flood of influenza cases into the hospital and emergency department, and also there were a number of sister institutions that ended up having influenza outbreaks which meant long-term care nursing homes couldn't take patients, chronic care facilities couldn't take patients from our hospital so we had a back-up of patients and basically it put a lot of stress on our infection control practices."

Visitor restrictions in place

To reduce the spread of infection, the hospital says care partners are always welcome, but there are some visitor restrictions, such as:

  • one visitor per patient in the Emergency Department
  • two visitors per patient in inpatient units
  • child visitors in exceptional circumstances only

In a written release Friday, hospital officials said the limitations are expected to be in place for approximately three weeks.