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Lab tech pleads not guilty

From staff and wire reports

CONCORD, N.H. ­-- A traveling hospital worker accused of stealing drugs and infecting patients with hepatitis C through contaminated syringes pleaded not guilty to the charges in federal court Monday.

David Kwiatkowski, whom prosecutors describe as a "serial infector," was indicted last week on multiple charges of tampering with a consumer product and illegally obtaining drugs.

Handcuffed, Kwiatkowski said only "yes" when asked in court if he understood his rights.

Kwiatkowski also worked in the cardiac catheterization laboratory at Hays Medical Center from May 24 to Sept. 22, 2010. Six HaysMed patients out of 474 determined to potentially have been exposed have tested positive for a strain of hepatitis C carried by Kwiatkowski.

His trial was scheduled for the first week of February, although U.S. Attorney John Kacavas said given the complexity of the case, it probably would take place later in the year.

Kacavas could not say how much federal prison time Kwiatkowski could get if convicted but said prosecutors will seek a substantial sentence.

He said the investigation continues, and further charges against Kwiatkowski could not be ruled out.

Until May, Kwiatkowski worked as a cardiac technologist at Exeter Hospital, where 32 patients were diagnosed with the same strain of hepatitis C he carries.

Before that, he worked as a traveling technologist in 18 hospitals in seven states, moving from job to job despite having been fired twice over allegations of drug use and theft.

Thousands of patients in Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Maryland, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania since have been tested for hepatitis C, a blood-borne viral infection that can cause liver disease and chronic health issues.

Seventeen people from western Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against UPMC and Maxim Healthcare Services in October.

Among the plaintiffs named is one man who died in January from liver failure, three patients who have tested positive for hepatitis C, five patients who have tested negative and one who was awaiting results of a blood test.

Two patients at HaysMed also have sued UPMC.

Kwiatkowski was a radiology technician for UPMC from March to May 2008.

In addition to the New Hampshire and Kansas patients, one patient in Maryland has been found to carry the strain Kwiatkowski carries.

In Exeter, Kwiatkowski is accused of stealing fentanyl, injecting himself and then re-filling the tainted syringes with saline to be used on patients.

The charges refer to seven incidents between January and March, and were handed up after prosecutors twice were given more time to present the case to the grand jury.

In requesting the delays, prosecutors said they were still conducting interviews and complex scientific analysis in multiple states, though the indictments only address Kwiatkowski's time in Exeter.

Though New Hampshire cannot charge him for possible violations in other states, it can use evidence gathered in those jurisdictions in its trial, Kacavas said.

Kacavas said other states are waiting to see the outcome of New Hampshire's case before deciding whether to file charges.

Kwiatkowski, who was arrested in July, had suggested a co-worker planted a fentanyl syringe found in his car.

Exeter Hospital officials have said while employees raised concerns about Kwiatkowski's appearance -- some described him as shaky and sweaty -- none suspected him of diverting medication.

In each case, Kwiatkowski provided plausible explanations related to either personal medical issues or family crises, according to the hospital.

Kwiatkowski held required certification for the job and was given good references from his previous employers.