Congratulations to Dr. Maureen Tierney, 2020 Inaugural McKnight Prize for Healthcare Outbreak Heroes Recipient

The McKnight Prize for Healthcare Outbreak Heroes was established by the Evelyn And Thomas McKnight Family Fund For Patient Safety to honor and recognize people who are doing important work to promote safe injection practices and patient safety. Last week, Maureen Tierney, MD, MSc, was honored for her rapid public health response to an outbreak of E. coli sepsis in an inaugural award ceremony with representatives from the McKnight family, Creighton University, the CDC Foundation and CDC. Dr. Tierney received five separate nominations for the award and was the unanimous choice of the committee for the 2020 prize.

At the time of her nomination, Dr. Tierney led the Nebraska Healthcare Associated Infection Antibiotic Resistance team. This team is tasked with working throughout the state to prevent healthcare associated infections and to intervene in the event of outbreaks. Since its inception, the team has coached 30 facilities in antibiotic stewardship and made 150 visits to facilities to improve infection prevention. Dr. Tierney now serves as chair for the Department of Clinical Research and assistant dean for clinical research and public health at Creighton University School of Medicine.

In 2019, when Dr. Tierney learned that patients in a Nebraska office were developing E. coli sepsis from an intravenous infusion of an unapproved exosome product, she realized the potential implications and significance of the outbreak. She immediately halted any further administration of these products and notified the Nebraska Public Health Lab of the need for testing. Within two days, culture results revealed the connection between the contaminated vials and the sick patients. Dr. Tierney, her team (especially Margaret Drake and Dr. Ishrat Kamal-Ahmed), and Dr. Tom Safranek also investigated the clinic and the exosome product manufacturer, ultimately uncovering unsafe practices that put patients at risk. Due to the team’s quick actions, a health alert informing providers was sent statewide within weeks of this discovery, and local media communicated the seriousness of the outbreak to the public. By December, the FDA had published a national patient safety alert on the use of exosome therapy.

Dr. Tierney has a strong record of meticulous public health investigation. Last year, she led an outbreak intervention with expertise from Ms. Drake, Dr. Kamal-Ahmed, and hospital facility personnel. Together, they worked to control a rare and highly resistant cross species NDM carbapenemase. The enzyme caused infection and colonization in about six patients, while 150 patients required screening. Dr. Tierney and the Healthcare-Associated Infections team played a key role in assisting the acute care facility with screening protocols, environmental cleaning and isolation. Due to her efforts, two additional and otherwise unknown colonizations of patients with this rare and highly resistant plasmid were uncovered in Nebraska. This discovery and the aggressive infection control and assessment by her team limited the outbreak.

Dr. Maureen Tierney, inaugural McKnight Prize for Healthcare Outbreak Heroes Recipient, begins a prestigious tradition and sets the bar for future awardees. Evelyn and Tom McKnight also offered their congratulations to Dr. Tierney for her outstanding work to keep patients safe. “Although we have made great strides in advocating for patient safety, we know that there must be ongoing vigilance,” said Evelyn. “We know that there are countless heroes striving to make healthcare safe. We commend you for your care, your diligence, your passion for healthcare safety. Thank you. We need more people like you.”

Nominations for the 2021 McKnight Prize for Healthcare Outbreak Heroes will be accepted through January 31, 2021. If you would like to nominate someone you believe is a worthy recipient of the McKnight Prize for Healthcare Outbreak Heroes, please fill out the 2021 nomination form.

Headshot for Susanne Salehi
Susanne Salehi is an advancement associate for the CDC Foundation.