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Flu nurse asserts her innocence
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Michelle Torgerson and her attorney, Robert Hajek, maintained in a Sunday news conference that she did nothing wrong when administering flu shots at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
The nurse whose impromptu flu shot clinics at Augsburg College have caused a stir is insisting anew that she did nothing wrong. Michelle Torgerson says she did not dilute or otherwise tamper with the flu vaccine left over from her employer's previous clinic. Torgerson also said Sunday that she received permission from a college administrator to sell the vaccinations for a charitable cause.

St. Paul, Minn. — Torgerson summoned reporters to her attorney's office to respond to the Minnesota Health Department's assertions that she had been selling vaccine that appeared to be diltued with a saline solution.

Before getting into specifics, though, she defended herself generally against the recent notoriety that Torgerson says has destroyed her name and her family's reputation.

"I want to set the record straight. I have not been charged with a crime, but I have been on trial all week to prove my innocence. I have been portrayed as a thief, liar, and a bad nurse. None of which is true," Torgerson said. "I have cooperated with the police and all investigations, and continue to give true and accurate statements to these individuals. I'm here again to say I have done nothing wrong."

Torgerson says her employer, Maxim Health Services, conducted a flu shot clinc at Augsburg on Nov. 11. She says she returned to the college on her own on Nov. 30 and Dec. 2, and sold vaccine left over from her fist visit to help her daughter raise money for the American Heart Association. She was subsequently arrested by Minneapolis police, who said they were unsure what Torgerson had injected into her three dozen customers.

I have not been charged with a crime, but I have been on trial all week to prove my innocence. I have been portrayed as a thief, liar, and a bad nurse. None of which is true.
- Michelle Torgerson

On Friday, the Health Department said laboratory tests conducted by the Food and Drug Administration on vials in Torgerson's possession show they did contain flu vaccine but that it had been watered down with saline. Torgerson's attorney, Robert Hajek, says he is disputing those tests and wants to see the actual results, rather than just the Health Department's summary.

"I have not seen the test data. And until I see the test data -- and share that test data with my own experts -- all I can do is comment on what we believe to be the truth here," said Hajek.

Hajek noted the Health Department's summary says some of the vials did not contain enough material to allow for comprehensive testing. But a Health Department official says the evidence of dilution is strong, nonetheless.

Kris Ehresmann, who oversees immunizations for the department, says the liquid that was in the vials contained elements found in flu vaccine. But Ehresmann says the concentration of those elements compared to other materials, particularly chloride, was not what it would be in unadulterated vaccine.

"The fact that the concentrations are less than expected suggests, then, that there was something going on. And the fact that the chloride concentration was equal suggests that something was added -- and that what was added included chloride, or sodium chloride or saline."

Ehresmann emphasized that the shots Michelle Torgerson administered at Augsburg were not part of a conventional flu shot clinic, and that there's no reason to believe the vaccine at regular clinics is diluted.

Enforcement is not up to the state, though. Ehresmann says the vendors that run the clinics -- such as Maxim Health Services -- get their vaccine directly from the manufacturer in vials containing 10 doses. She says the vaccine should go directly from that vial into a patient's arm, and any nurse or doctor who tampers with it risks violating federal law and losing their professional license.

"It's the boards of nursing, the board of medicine, the board of pharmacy that would be responsible for the details of how an individual handles their practice and how things are done," says Ehresmann. "Then there are federal laws that also address how medical products -- pharmaceuticals -- are handled, as well."

Flu vaccine is in short supply this year, following the temporary shut down of a British factory that normally supplies about half of the vaccine distributed in the U.S.

But Ehresmann says health officials accounted for that shortage when they announced that vaccinations would be limited to certain groups of people, such as those 50 and older, those with chronic illnesses, or children younger than 2.

She says the 1.1 million doses of medicine received in Minnesota are sufficient to vaccinate those groups without any need for stretching the vaccine by diluting it.

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