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Health & wellness

N.H. medical technician, accused of infecting patients with hepatitis, pleads not guilty

CONCORD, N.H. -- A former medical technician at Exeter Hospital accused of spreading hepatitis C to dozens of patients nationwide plead not guilty Monday in federal court and was given a trial date of early February.

David M. Kwiatkowski, appearing stocky in a tan prison uniform and displaying a trim haircut and goatee, was indicted last week in an elaborate scheme to steal powerful painkillers, causing patients to become infected with his strain of the liver-damaging virus. Prosecutors say he grabbed syringes loaded with the painkiller Fentanyl, and, in an effort to avoid detection, replaced them with syringes that he had previously used. The substitute syringes, refilled with saline solution and tainted with hepatitis C, were used on patients by unknowing Exeter Hospital clinicians.

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Kwiatkowski, who held more than a dozen short-term jobs across the country over the past eight years, is accused of infecting 32 patients in New Hampshire, as well as six patients in Kansas and one in Maryland.

During Monday’s brief arraignment before magistrate Landya McCafferty, Kwiatkowski, 33, appeared reserved and spoke only a few times, saying “yes” when asked by the magistrate if, among other things, he understood the charges he faced and his constitutional right to remain silent. When it came to announcing his plea, Kwiatkowski did not speak, but his attorney, Bjorn Lange, said the defendant was pleading not guilty.

Onlookers at the hearing included mostly court personnel and reporters, though one man who declined to answer questions said he came as a “victim” of Kwiatkowski’s drug-stealing scheme.

The magistrate set Feb. 5 to start his trial, though accepted assistant US attorney John Farley’s categorization of the case as “complex,” suggesting the trial date could be pushed back.

The indictment covers Kwiatkowski’s role in infecting seven patients at Exeter, and for each, he faces one count of tampering with a controlled substance and one count of obtaining drugs through fraud. Prosecutors say additional charges related to other patients may be filed, and they have not ruled out additional defendants who may have played a role in the case. The most serious charge, the tampering count, comes with a maximum 10-year prison term.

Kwiatkowski is being held in the Strafford County House of Corrections in Dover, N.H.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com.

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