ROGERSVILLE — What caused a mass illness that affected nine persons at the Rural Health Consortium’s Rogersville Medical Clinic, on Hwy. 66 South Wednesday afternoon was still undetermined as of presstime, but whatever the mysterious substance or culprit was, it had apparently dissipated by late evening and an “all clear” was given to reopen the facility to staff and patients on Thursday morning.
The Nov. 8 evacuation was ordered after a male patient presented to the facility for a regularly scheduled appointment emanating a strong chemical-like odor that affected several people, according to emergency radio transmissions monitored at the Review.
About 3:30 p.m., the Rogersville Police Department began receiving calls indicating that medical staff in the examination suite who were attending to the patient had been sickened by the odor.
Law enforcement officers from RPD and the Hawkins Co. Sheriff’s Department, and first responders from Rogersville Fire Department, multiple ambulances from Hawkins Co. EMS, Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell, members of the Hawkins Co. Haz-Mat Team, and others responded immediately to the scene.
Rogersville Chief of Police Doug Nelson told the Review at the scene about 3:45 p.m. that preliminary tests using hand-held air monitors indicated that the entire facility had, at that point, been contaminated by the odor.
“At this time, we really do not know what we’re dealing with, but there is something in the air in there,” Nelson said.
He said that a hazardous material team from Kingsport was being called in to further test the air inside the building.
An unofficial report stated that the patient told authorities that he had been stripping floors at his residence with bleach and other chemicals prior to reporting to the clinic for a routine visit that was unconnected to his renovation project.
EMA Director Gary Murrell said in published reports that the man was cooperating with authorities and, puzzlingly, was not experiencing any of the symptoms that were exhibited by the medical clinic staff.
Police were quoted in published reports as saying that a search of the man’s home turned up nothing suspicious.
Linda Buck, Rural Health Services’ chief executive officer, said by telephone on Thursday morning that her organization was given the okay on Wednesday night to reopen Thursday after members of the Kingsport Hazardous Materials Team and local emergency personnel swept the building for the presence of hazardous substances and found nothing.
She praised the efforts of Rogersville police officers and firefighters along with Hawkins Co. EMS personnel, Emergency Management Agency Director Gary Murrell, Hawkins County and Kingsport Haz-Mat team members.
Buck said both patients and staff were evacuated from the building after two staff members (a nurse practitioner and a nurse) who had been inside a treatment room with a male patient began experiencing symptoms that included rapid heart beats and headaches.
The nurse first emerged from the treatment report and reported feeling ill and was followed shortly afterward by the nurse practitioner, according to Buck.
“We were attending to the first staff member when the provider (nurse practitioner) came out with the same symptoms,” Buck said.
“We immediately called the Rogersville Police Department and it’s my understanding that Chief of Police Doug Nelson came immediately. The nurse was having what we would consider severe issues, so, in the meantime, we called EMS and locked everything down in the building using a protocol and procedures that we have in place for similar situations. At that point, we did not know what it was.
“We decided it was best not to try to isolate it to that particular suite and evacuated the whole building. That was not necessarily on the advice of anyone. It was just a protocol from within our organization.”
Hawkins Co. EMS was called to transport the two ill staff members to Wellmont’s Hawkins Co. Memorial Hospital for evaluation and treatment.
Buck noted that staff members and patients who had been inside the Rural Health Services building at the time of the incident also were directed to go to the hospital for evaluation if they felt ill or were concerned.
Buck said that about five Rural Health Services staff members (including the two transported by ambulance) eventually went to the hospital.
Most staff members returned to work on Thursday morning, Buck said, although the nurse practitioner and the nurse who were taken by ambulance to the hospital were given Thursday off to recuperate.
In all, authorities said, a total of nine people (including staff members and patients) were treated at the local hospital where they underwent decontamination.
“We were able to contain the patient from the visit and the police did take the patient into custody and they did do proper protocol to find out what was going on with that patient,” Buck said.
She noted that members of the Kingsport Hazardous Materials Team checked the affected Rural Health Services employees and the patients from Rural Health who went to the hospital on Wednesday evening.
“They found nothing to my knowledge,” she said. “Then they came over to our building and found absolutely nothing (that might have caused the mystery illnesses),” she said. “We had the building locked down so doors weren’t being opened.”
Buck referred a reporter to Rogersville Police for more details.
“There are two things I would like to say,” she said. “The first is that with first responders, everyone works together. It was precisely done last night. I cannot fully express my appreciation to the Rogersville City Police, the EMS, the fire department, the Sheriff’s Office, the Drug Task Force and the Kingsport Hazardous Materials Team members that that called to come down and do due diligence. If that had not been done correctly, we could not report to you today that there was nothing found. People can be assured that safety is first with us. There are a lot of questions, but I will let the police say what they found at the patient’s home. I want to assure patients that their safety, along with that of our staff, was first and foremost.”
Rebecca Beck, President of Wellmont’s Hawkins Co. Memorial Hospital, told the Review by phone Wednesday evening that a total of nine patients were seen at the facility and that all were decontaminated, treated and released.
Beck said that she was so very proud of the hospital’s staff who “stepped up to the plate” and handled the mass emergency in an exemplary manner.
All nine patients went through the decontamination process and Beck said that she was very pleased at the timely and efficient response from the hospital’s staff.
“They managed the situation very well. We were able to maintain hospital operations during throughout the duration of the incident and the decontamination.”
Teams from the hospital’s Med-Surg and OR departments pitched in and assisted with other patients that were in the facility at the time, she said.
“The training and exercises we participate in routinely certainly paid off,” Beck said. “We were prepared and were very appropriate and effective in our treatment of these patients who presented to us.”
Beck said that news and social media reports that the hospital had to close during the emergency were incorrect.
“The hospital was not shut down at all, at any time,” Beck said. “We did have enhanced security measures in place though, in that we had our security officers stationed just to manage traffic flow and to make sure that people were getting to the place they needed to go. We felt that was very effective as well.”
No one else in the hospital was in any danger or was affected in any way, she said.
“Those patients going through the decontamination process were segregated to prevent any cross-contamination potential with other patients, families or staff members in the building,” Beck added.