The VA Medical Center in Omaha has closed its seven operating rooms indefinitely because devices that provide humidity to the rooms aren't working.
The humidifiers in three operating rooms failed in February, and two more went down this month. Officials shut down all operating rooms, including the two with functioning humidifiers, until the problem is solved and the devices are fixed or replaced.
Hospital administrators said Saturday that the proper temperature and humidity level are important in surgical areas. They stressed that the situation caused neither an infection problem nor mold contamination.
The devices are 50 years old, and that may be what caused the humidifiers in the rooms to malfunction, said Robert Yager, chief engineer for the region's VA health care system. The fact that five malfunctioned, one at a time, within a few weeks caused bewilderment and concern.
“It is most certainly enough of a coincidence that we need to do this further analysis,” Yager said.
Marci Mylan, director of the VA Nebraska-Western Iowa Health Care System, said it's not clear how long the operating rooms will be out of commission or what it will cost to fix or replace the devices.
“And safe organizations stand down if they don't understand an equipment problem,” Mylan said. “And I think that's exactly what we're doing.”
The humidifiers sit in the air-handling system and inject steam into the air flow. They regulate the humidity by turning on and off as necessary. The humidifiers function independently of one another and are connected only by a supply line of steam, Yager said.
Meanwhile, surgeries that would have taken place at the VA hospital at 4101 Woolworth Ave. will be done elsewhere, primarily at Creighton University Medical Center and the Nebraska Medical Center.
The Department of Veterans Affairs has sent two engineers from Washington, D.C., to join engineers and tradesmen from the regional system. “This is fairly old equipment,” Yager said. “We need to do further analysis.”
Will Ackerman, a spokesman for the system, said that while the rooms are closed, engineers will perform a full-scale assessment of the operating rooms to see if there are other maintenance deficiencies.
If this proves to be a long-term closing, Mylan said, hospital leadership will consider leasing surgical space from another hospital.
Dr. Jason Johanning, chief of surgery at the VA hospital, said about 300 procedures a month are done there. They include hip and knee replacements, cancer surgeries, spine procedures and brain surgeries.
Johanning said the hospital's surgical infection rate is half that which federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines consider acceptable, and that rate has remained low during this stretch.
Mylan said the surgical rooms have been tested for mold spores and she could “emphatically” assert there is no contamination.
Johanning said leadership just wants to be safe. “This is us being proactive, with an abundance of caution,” he said.
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