The woman offering flu shots for $20 in the commons area at Augsburg College seemed plausible enough green scrubs, white lab coat, stethoscope that about three dozen...
MINNEAPOLIS The woman offering flu shots for $20 in the commons area at Augsburg College seemed plausible enough green scrubs, white lab coat, stethoscope that about three dozen people willingly paid their money, rolled up their sleeves and let her plunge the needle in.
But no one had scheduled a flu clinic. No one knew who the woman was. And no one could be sure what was in those syringes.
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She turned out to be Michelle Torgerson, 33, a free-lancing nurse who says she was selling leftover vaccine as a fund-raiser for her daughter’s school. And lab tests showed the vials that police took from Torgerson contained real flu vaccine, although some had been diluted.
But in an age when bioterrorism experts worry about sophisticated attacks, the case shows how anyone with a syringe and a reasonable looking get-up can have potential victims lining up even paying to be injected with who-knows-what.
“Imagine if they hadn’t been able to track her down, and they had no idea, and somebody had just come onto a college campus injecting people with something,” said Dr. Michael Osterholm, a bioterrorism expert with the National Center for Food Protection and Defense at the University of Minnesota.
In Washington state, Lynden police are investigating a case involving a woman who administered flu shots last month at Whatcom County stores in an apparent money-making scheme. The woman, a registered nurse, is believed to have injected about 130 people for $30 each.
Osterholm said it’s not realistic to expect patients to challenge the credentials of every nurse who administers a flu shot but he said Augsburg College should have. “I think this really is at the center of the discussion about what does it mean to recognize and report suspicious behavior,” he said.
On Dec. 2, a staffer confronted Torgerson, asking who she was and who her supervisor was, according to Augsburg security director John Pack.
Pack said he and another security worker headed toward the commons to investigate. “At that point I wasn’t thinking whether or not it was malicious or a mix-up,” Pack said. “I was thinking about the scope I wondered how many people received shots.”
Torgerson, of suburban Albertville, had left the campus promising she would provide the name of a supervisor, Pack said. But the security director said she never did, further raising suspicions.
Torgerson gave a different account Sunday, saying that she did speak briefly to an administrator named “Diane,” but that she wasn’t challenged. She said she left after the noon hour, as she had planned, and did not “abruptly” leave, as officials have said.
Pack called police, and then set about trying to find out how many people had been injected. He sent an e-mail alert to everyone on campus, and printed red fliers asking anyone who had gotten the shots to come forward. Teachers read the alert in class the next day. Police arrested Torgerson the day after the injections were discovered. She has not been charged.
Torgerson, a licensed practical nurse who had given immunizations as part of a legitimate clinic at Augsburg last month, insists that she did nothing wrong.
She said she believed she had permission from an Augsburg administrator in charge of the student center to give the flu shots on her most recent visits to the school.
But some students are going in for HIV tests anyway, and about 100 attended a meeting in the school’s chapel last week where police and health workers answered questions. Augsburg President William Frame apologized. Some students were mollified, while others remained angry.
According to the Minnesota Department of Health, test results that came back Friday from the Food and Drug Administration showed the vials that police took from Torgerson contained real vaccine, but that the vaccine in some vials had been watered down with saline solution.
Torgerson denied diluting the vaccine.
Some bioterrorism experts said it’s tough to guard against a theoretical threat like someone impersonating a nurse and injecting victims with something toxic.
“Society operates at a certain level of trust, and I think it’s very difficult to really police … any sort of activity like this very extensively,” said Dr. D.A. Henderson, a senior adviser at the Center for Biosecurity at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Augsburg now requires outside vendors to display a permit.