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In the state’s latest assessment of hospital-associated infections, Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital reported a high rate of infections caused by a nasty intestinal bacterium that is often caused by the overuse or misuse of antibiotics.

In 2014, according to hospital- reported data compiled by the California Department of Public Health, Sutter’s Santa Rosa hospital logged 25 cases of clostridium difficile, or C. diff., a germ that can cause diarrhea, abdominal pain, nausea, loss of appetite and fever and in some cases can be deadly.

C. diff. is estimated to cause about 500,000 infections each year, with 29,000 people dying from the bacterium within 30 days of being diagnosed with the condition.

The 25 total cases reported by Sutter in 2014 was almost double the number set as a national benchmark used for comparison purposes. It also was more than three times the number the hospital reported in 2013, when it had seven cases of C. diff. infection.

No other hospital in Sonoma County had infection rates that were significantly above the national benchmarks.

The high infection rate in 2014 was atypical at the hospital, Sutter spokeswoman Lisa Amador said in a statement. The Santa Rosa hospital met the state threshold in previous years and reduced the number of C. diff. cases by 50 percent in 2015, meeting the state benchmark, she said.

The report was based on data collected in 2014, when Sutter shut down its 78-year-old hospital on Chanate Road and moved into a new, $292 million hospital constructed off Highway 101 north of Santa Rosa. The new hospital has private rooms, which helps to prevent the transmission of infections, Amador said. It also launched a program called Antimicrobial Stewardship, a national and state initiative to help reduce the side effects of C-diff.

“Providing safe, quality care is a top priority at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital,” Amador said.

Sutter’s hospital in Santa Rosa was among 392 licensed general acute care hospitals that submitted data in 2014 for health care-associated infections, or HAIs, infections that patients develop during the course of receiving treatment for other conditions. The data is contained in an annual report on hospital infections the state has issued for the past six years.

“This report will help the public make informed decisions on where they want to receive health care,” said Dr. Karen Smith, director of the state Department of Public Health. “Though data shows California hospitals are getting better, there is still work to be done.”

The state said that despite progress, hospital infections continue to be a significant public health problem for California. Hospitals statewide reported 19,200 HAI cases in 2014. Although the rate of most types of HAI cases has dropped, C. diff. diarrheal infections have increased 9 percent since 2011, the report said.

Other types of HAI cases reported include central line-associated bloodstream infections; methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus bloodstream infections; vancomycin-resistant enterococci bloodstream infections; and surgical site infections.

The HAI report said that Sutter’s Santa Rosa facility also reported significantly high rates of surgical site infections in 2014.

Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project, said surgical site infections often are associated with a specific surgeon or health care professional. She said C. diff., on the other hand, reflects a more general assessment of a hospital’s medical procedures.

McGiffert was part of the public campaign to get California’s infection reporting law enacted in 2008. C. diff., she said, is typically caused by the overuse of antibiotics that can kill good bacteria in your gut that keeps C. diff. in check. She said that about half the antibiotics used in hospitals are either unnecessary or the wrong type.

“They tend to throw antibiotics at every infection,” McGiffert said.

The transmission of C. diff. is “fecal to mouth,” she said, though not often directly. She said a typical hospital scenario might involve a patient with C. diff. having a messy diarrhea accident that is not quickly or thoroughly cleaned. If it isn’t cleaned, the bacteria can be carried by touch by a doctor, nurse or medical assistant, she said.

“That nurse can carry it to another patient,” she said. “Health care workers really have to wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water. Alcohol gel works on many bacteria, but it doesn’t kill C. diff. spores.”

McGiffert said hospitals can often be “chaotic” environments where staff are trying to meet the needs of numerous patients. But she said that hospitals must take precautions, cleaning surfaces thoroughly with bleach.

“We’re seeing the numbers going down and the rates going down, which is good,” McGiffert said. “But still, 19,200 hospital patients were infected in 2014. That’s a lot of people who were harmed. These hospitals need to beef up their prevention, especially those that have repeatedly been on the high- incidence list.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to include Sutter Health’s response to the state report.

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