Sterilization woes prompt Aspen Valley Hospital to suspend elective surgeries

Aspen Valley Hospital has yet to see an upsurge in COVID-19 cases even after restaurants and businesses have begun to reopen.
The Aspen Times File

Elective surgeries have been suspended at Aspen Valley Hospital since Thursday night because the facility’s sterilization process has been compromised, hospital CEO David Ressler said.

“We have temporarily suspended much of our surgical operations until we get this issue fixed,” Ressler said Monday.

The hospital has a limited supply of untainted surgical packs that will be used for trauma surgeries in the meantime.

“We are rescheduling the elective cases,” Ressler said. “Fortunately, so far we have not had any traumas, but we are prepared for them. We have some surgical packs that remain in inventory for trauma.”

Two patients scheduled for Friday surgeries related to bone fractures were sent to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, Ressler noted. The hospital considers C-section operations, for example, as necessary procedures.

“We are able to do C-sections,” Ressler said. “We don’t consider those to be elective.”

In the meantime, engineers are trying to fix an issue that was discovered last week. Ressler and the staff initially thought the problem would be remedied by Saturday morning, but it persisted through the weekend and into Monday.

“Let me put this into perspective,” Ressler said. “We thought it would be back up Saturday morning, then Sunday morning, and I thought for sure Monday morning.”

In a second interview later Monday, Ressler said he was optimistic the problem will be fixed by today.

“We’re really looking good,” he said. “Our team has been very impressive. Just amazing teamwork.”

The problem stems from the hospital’s steam-sterilization process.

“We started noticing some moisture in our surgical packs,” Ressler explained. “We have very tight monitoring in place for moisture content, and if it is slightly elevated, we can’t have moisture in a sterilized pack. We immediately suspended any surgeries using those packs. We couldn’t put them into our inventory and we decided to suspend surgeries in general.”

The steam problem is rooted in the hospital’s boilers, Ressler said.

“We use steam for many purposes, and we use some of that steam for our sterilizers,” he said. “In layperson’s terms, it’s just that the steam has too much water content.”

The hospital CEO said this is the first time he has experienced such an ordeal.

“Our engineers, they deal with this issue around the country,” he said. “I have not experienced it. I should also point out that we actually have four sterilizer machines, two large and two small, and one is virtually brand new. We have state-of-the-art equipment. (The problem is) a function of the steam supply.”