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The Associated Press March 2, 2011, 2:46PM ET

Bed bugs prompt cleaning at Des Moines hospital

An Iowa hospital working to stop the spread of a bed bug infestation was forced to limit access to care in its psychiatric unit for three days after the insects were discovered in two patients' rooms, hospital officials said.

Officials at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, a public hospital that serves Polk County, said workers discovered bed bugs in room D5 during a routine cleaning in early February. The hospital hired Ecolab, a pest control company, to eradicate the room of the tiny parasites that feed on human blood and spray two adjacent rooms as a precaution. But the problem wasn't over yet.

More bed bugs were later discovered in room E6, and the hospital decided to shut down the entire E hallway and several patient rooms for spraying and cleaning to stop the spread, said Vincent Mandracchia, Broadlawns' chief medical officer.

"Bed bugs noted during treatment," reads an invoice from Ecolab, one of four the hospital paid between Feb. 8 and Feb. 28 totaling $550 and released to The Associated Press. "All activity that was found was treated and inspected."

The three-day process meant the hospital's mental health and psychiatric center, which normally houses 26, was forced to stop admitting patients. On Feb. 21 and Feb. 22, the patient count dropped to a low of 16, rose to 18 on Feb. 23 and then went back up to capacity after all rooms were reopened, Mandracchia said.

Patients who showed up at the hospital's emergency department in need of mental health treatment during that time were urged to transfer to other hospitals, he said.

"None of our patients in the unit were compromised in their care," he said. "We just couldn't admit any other patients into those rooms until they were completely clear."

Bed bugs do not carry disease, usually bite only at night and do not always cause a reaction among victims. Mandracchia said one patient was bitten, and officials believe he may have been the source who inadvertently brought the insects to the hospital. He said there's no evidence they have spread to other parts of the hospital, but workers continue close monitoring.

The problems at Broadlawns underscore the challenge facing business owners to keep out bed bugs and eliminate them once discovered as the critters make a nationwide comeback. Blank Children's Hospital in Des Moines reported treating two rooms last September where bed bugs were found. A housing complex for senior citizens in downtown Des Moines also had an outbreak.

David Werning, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, said the bugs are making "a resurgence" in Iowa, and complaints about their presence at hotels and motels have spiked dramatically. Two or three customers are complaining per month, up from about one every other month in 2009, he said. Some send in photos of their bites.

Werning said his agency dispatches an inspector every time it receives a bed bug complaint about a hotel, and most operators agree to eradicate them either through spraying or heat treatment. But he said hospitals do not need to report bed bug problems to his agency's health facilities division, and its inspectors do not investigate them at hospitals because the bugs do not pose a public health problem.

"They are creepy no matter where they are," Werning said. "What makes it creepier if you are in a hospital is you're already not feeling well and you've gone to a place that is supposed to be the synonym for cleanliness to recuperate in a clean, sterile, environment. And you wake up and find you've been bitten by bed bugs. That takes the creepy sensation one step higher."

Mandracchia said Broadlawns was ready to fight back. The hospital had adopted a policy in December meant to prevent infestation that told staff members to be on the lookout and capture any bed bugs they find. The policy spells out procedures for detection, extermination and cleaning, closing affected rooms and treating affected patients and visitors.

"Bed bugs are a small nocturnal blood-feeding insect. They have not shown to cause disease," the policy reads. "They are however, very irritating and the best prevention is early detection with eradication."

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