SOMERS POINT — More than 200 former patients of Shore Medical Center may have been exposed to HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C through a former employee’s blood, according to the hospital, which began notifying the patients earlier this month so they could be tested.

The notices were sent Feb. 16 to specific patients who were at the hospital in 2013 and 2014.

Arlene Polmonari, of Atlantic City, received her letter last week advising her that because of her past surgeries she could have contracted one of the diseases, some of which have no cure.

She panicked.

“A phone call would have been nicer than this,” Polmonari said. “You know, to soften the blow a little, make people not feel so hysterical about it.”

Shore is trying to allay fears by covering the cost of testing for those patients if they are tested at the medical center. Patients also can seek private testing.

“We have contacted all patients who received certain intravenous medication between June 1, 2013 and Sept. 17, 2014,” a hospital statement issued Wednesday said. “We are providing free testing and support through every step and are partnering with local health department agencies during this testing period in order to be extremely cautious.”

The hospital, the state Department of Health and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are working together to investigate whether certain patients who received intravenous morphine or hydromorphone medications at the hospital in that date range contracted the diseases.

Frederick P. McLeish, 53, of Egg Harbor Township, a former employee and pharmacist at the hospital, was recently accused of replacing morphine with saline solution in vials that were to be administered to patients, according to previous reports. The hospital declined to name McLeish as the employee, citing federal privacy laws.

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Not all patients who received those medications at the hospital in that time frame are in danger, said Brian Cahill, Shore spokesman.

“Only patients who were contacted by the hospital last week who have been determined to have potential exposure should get tested,” he said.

All other patients who had received those medications at the hospital in that timeframe are not in danger, Cahill said.

In its letter to patients, hospital officials say drug tampering may have caused specific patients to come in contact with an employee’s blood. Once the hospital became aware of this risk, it immediately notified these 213 patients, Cahill said.

The hospital declined to give the exact date it became aware of the potential health risks to patients.

However, an internal investigation at the hospital and an investigation by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office alleged that McLeish tampered with drugs between July 1 and Sept. 17, 2014. McLeish was suspended in September 2014 and later fired, according to a statement issued by the Prosecutor’s Office in January.

McLeish voluntarily surrendered his pharmacy license Dec. 16, 2014, according to court documents.

Prosecutor’s Office detectives arrested McLeish on Jan. 21 and charged him with drug tampering, possession of morphine and theft. If convicted, he could face as long as 10 years in state prison. McLeish was released after posting $20,000 bail and is scheduled to appear March 7 in Superior Court in Atlantic County.

Prosecutor James McClain said it would be “inappropriate to make further comment at this time” about McLeish’s case and any connection to the current testing.

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McLeish’s attorney, John Zarych of Northfield, declined to discuss the charges against him.

The state Department of Health consulted with experts at the CDC about the situation, but confirmed that no CDC personnel are in New Jersey assisting with the testing procedures.

“The Department of Health is working with Shore Medical Center to investigate a potential infection control breach at the hospital,” said Dawn Thomas, department spokeswoman.

“Although the risk of infection is low, out of an abundance of caution, the Department of Health is recommending that affected patients receive testing for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV,” she said.

In an interview with The Press of Atlantic City, Polmonari grasped the letter in her fist . She has been undergoing testing for the past several weeks for an issue involving shortness of breath that has yet to be diagnosed. She said she worried that the reason for her symptom could have been related to the exposure.

Polmonari got the letter Feb. 18. After a sleepless night, she went to get tested the following day and was directed to a Shore testing facility on Shore Road. She said she was initially told that she would have to wait two weeks for her results, but she asked if the process could be expedited. HIV and hepatitis C results were available that day, but she had to wait until Feb. 22, for the hepatitis B results.

“Thankfully, I tested negative for all three,” she said.

But what alarms Polmonari, she said, is how long it took at-risk patients to be informed.

“We are talking a year and a half that people could have been exposed and getting sick from this,” she said. “How many people could have brought it home to their spouses or pregnant women to their babies or whatever, and they are just now letting people know?”

Shore contacted the state Department of Consumer Affairs about the situation, Thomas said.

Shore has set up a dedicated call center for affected patients and family members who may have additional questions. The number is 609-653-3900.

Colleen McGuigan, of Woodbine, was treated with intravenous morphine multiple times at Shore Medical Center in 2013 and 2014, but did not receive a letter. She is a former employee of the hospital.

McGuigan called the call center Thursday afternoon to make a testing appointment. When she provided her name, she said, a woman who answered that call told her she was not on the list of patients who were in danger of contracting the diseases and could not schedule a testing appointment.

“If I was a hospital administrator, I’d say that anyone who was in the hospital and received IV medications at that time should come in and get tested,” McGuigan said. “Even if they’re uncomfortable and think they might have been infected.”

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