As the federal murder trial of a pharmacist who oversaw a compounding center deemed responsible for a deadly meningitis outbreak continues, one former employee has testified that the company’s lax atmosphere played a role in the cleanroom’s unsanitary conditions.
Former New England Compounding Center owner and president Barry Cadden is facing 25 counts of murder for the 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak, which resulted from steroids compounded by NECC. He is also facing racketeering charges. The outbreak killed 64 people and sickened over 700 others.
Read more: Pharmacists from Fatal Meningitis Outbreak Facing Trial
Owen J. Finnegan began working as a pharmacy technician at the New England Compounding Center in 2010, where he filled vials with compounded drugs, including the methlyprednisolone acetate drug that became tainted by mold and caused the deadly meningitis outbreak. He was there until the facility shut down in October 2012 after news spread of the outbreak.
Finnegan testified on Jan. 24 that he was told during his initial job interview that “there was a lot of testosterone at NECC,” and compared the atmosphere to a locker room environment.
He said that, to pass the time, workers would yell and wrestle with each other, and spray each other with alcohol. He said that one employee was pushed out of the cleanroom and onto a conveyer belt meant for compounded drugs, and employees would ride around on drug carts like bumper cars. He testified that Cadden sometimes noticed the hijinks but did not correct or discipline the employees.
Read more: CDC Doc: Meningitis Outbreak Rivaled Ebola Epidemic
Finnegan also said that a female cleanroom employee had complained that the workspace was offensive, racist, and sexist. He commented that former supervising pharmacist Glenn Chin — who is also being charged with 25 counts of second-degree murder and racketeering charges and will face trial himself at a later date — told Finnegan and other workers to stop the jokes until a “paper trail” could be gathered on the female employee. Finnegan said that Chin was given those instructions from Cadden, and also said that the atmosphere calmed down until the female employee left for good.
Finnegan said that cleaning was empathized as a top priority when he first started at the job, particularly by Chin, who kept emphasizing that the drugs would be injected into patients’ spinal columns and therefore any mistakes could be deadly. Finnegan noted that Chin seemed “overly concerned about a shutdown.”
“The hood was cleaned with alcohol daily. They used spore cleanse in hood monthly,” Finnegan said during his testimony. He also talked about the concerns he’d had about fellow employees: a worker who didn’t seem to be paying attention when he was under the hood; a technician who would take a shortcut by printing out weight labels in advance rather than weighing the medication first; a technician who entered the cleanroom without booties and was surprised when he was scolded for it; a worker who didn’t notice that he was filling an order with the wrong ingredient until someone pointed it out.
He further testified that production demand dramatically increased in 2012, and cleanliness and proper procedure soon took a backseat to production during the facility’s final three or four months of operation. Employees often worked 13-hour days, six days a week. Finnegan further pointed out that vent circulation hoods in the cleanroom were supposed to be cleaned and sterilized once a day; at times they weren’t cleaned for up to a month.
Multiple orders were placed under a hood rather than the standard one-at-a-time, and the standard two-week wait period between testing and sending out orders was overlooked. (Cadden’s attorneys, however, have emphasized that national standards do not require that all compounded medications be tested.) Finnegan stated that employees would occasionally change the lot number on sterile products in order to get an order filled — in a practice he called “Botching the Lot” — which would render it impossible to trace a vial if there was an outbreak or recall.