Three more patients have died, including one at a hospital in the Niagara Health System that is not among the facilities in the area's outbreak, as health officials struggle to control the spread of a deadly superbug.
Niagara Health System announced on Friday the death of a patient with Clostridium difficile at its Niagara-on-the-Lake site and two more deaths at its St. Catharines General site, bringing the total number of deaths in its hospitals to 20.
At least four patients with the disease in other Ontario hospitals have also died.
C. difficile produces toxins that damage the lining of the gut and cause severe diarrhea in some patients. The elderly and those taking antibiotics are most susceptible.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake Hospital has one other patient with C. difficile, but it is not among the three facilities in the Niagara Health System that have declared outbreaks.
Dr. Sue Matthews, interim chief executive officer of the sprawling health system that includes seven hospitals, said it's too early to say if there is a connection between the latest death and the ongoing outbreaks.
"It's associated with [C. difficile] All of our deaths of anyone who has C. difficile are reviewed and they are also sent to the coroner," she said, adding it could take weeks before she can provide more details on how the patient contracted the disease.
A federal epidemiologist was dispatched to the region earlier this week to help study the outbreak and make recommendations for controlling it.
Outbreaks have also been declared at Ontario hospitals in Orangeville, Guelph, Mississauga and at a small rehabilitation centre in St. Catharines.
Three other Ontario hospitals that were on an outbreak list earlier this week say they have since controlled the disease, including the Lennox and Addington General Hospital in Napanee, Toronto East General Hospital and the Juravinski Hospital, which is part of Hamilton Health Sciences.
"Public Health was at our hospital this afternoon and we can officially declare it as over," said Kim Morrison, the acting chief of staff and president of medical staff at Lennox and Addington General Hospital. "We're having a great day here."
The hospital "very rarely" sees C. difficile cases, Dr. Morrison said, but had a sudden spike of five in April this year. "We couldn't identify any triggers as to why it all of sudden started," she added.
Niagara Health System remains under intense pressure for its handling of the C. difficile outbreak after losing its senior spokeswoman, Christine Clark, earlier this week. No explanation was given for her departure.
The health system is offering daily briefings on the outbreak and a spokeswoman told reporters on Friday officials are taking every precaution to prevent the spread of the disease to other hospitals.
"We've limited the number of [patient]transfers and we transfer only when absolutely necessary for patient care," Dr. Matthews said, adding new patients are now screened for diarrhea and their recent history in other health facilities when they arrive at a Niagara Health System hospital for care.