Last year an Oregon woman found a baby squirrel and tried to nurse it back to health. Although she had the best of intentions, that turned out to be a bad decision. Not only did the squirrel die, it exposed the woman to Francisella tularensis, a bacteria can be lethal without treatment.

Fortunately, the woman sent the dead squirrel to the Oregon Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory (OVDL) for evaluation. At the OVDL, a pathologist found suspicious lesions in tissue samples taken from the squirrel and forwarded them to the bacteriology department who identified Francisella tularensis. The OVDL  contacted, the owner and notified and sent samples to the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory (OSPHL) who confirmed the diagnosis. The OSPHL informed the exposed woman, and advised her to begin antibiotic treatment.

Although the OVDL often works closely with the OSPHL, and the outcome of this case was successful, it also served as a catalyst to bring the two agencies together for an analysis of the processes they use to respond to biological risks. As a result, they further refined a triage protocol for high-consequence pathogens that would provide added precautionary steps in the future.

As part of the new protocol, the OVDL modified their sample intake forms to better gather high-risk information. They added questions like What symptoms is the animal showing? and Was there exposure to humans?. The new forms will enhance safety in the laboratory and help prioritize cases.

The whole process was a successful collaboration between the OVDL, the OSPHL, and the Oregon Health Authority.