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AGH system lock continues

By Mallory Panuska, Staff Writer

(Feb. 9, 2023) Most of Atlantic General Hospital’s computer network is still out of commission this week following a ransomware attack discovered Jan. 29.

Toni Keiser, the hospital’s vice president of public relations, said in an email Tuesday afternoon that hospital staff are working diligently to get the system back online, but that no further public updates were available regarding the exact cause, or when the system may be fully restored

“Please know that we will make every effort to continue to communicate with our partners regarding the progress of our response to this event and will provide updates as they are available,” the email said. “Because we are currently devoting all available resources to the restoration efforts and the investigation is ongoing, we do not have additional information at this time.”

With that, some patients did receive a text message on Tuesday informing them that AGHRx RediScripts Pharmacy services, which were not in operation last week, have been restored.

Keiser said in an email last week that officials were investigating the source of what she called a “ransomware event,” after discovering it early on Jan. 29. They were also working to confirm its impact and restore full functionality of the system, efforts which are ongoing.

A ransomware attack is when hackers plant encrypted files in a computer system that lock out the network’s owner. The perpetrators then demand payment to unlock the encryptions.

With the attack on the AGH system, hospital personnel implemented “downtime procedures,” meaning staff began using methods to handle information that are not dependent on the central computer system. Specifically, they have been forced to manually check patients in and out of appointments, and record all other information by hand instead of online.

Keiser also said last week that hospital personnel are doing everything they can to protect the privacy and security of all information within the system, which includes patient records. The efforts may be moot, though, as federal cybersecurity officials say a ransomware attack does not always involve a breach of sensitive data.

According to the Federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, the goal of ransomware attacks is to strike quickly, take over a system, collect a ransom to re-open it and move on to the next target.

A data breach, however, can be a separate event that takes more time because accessing the information in a system involves more than gaining entry. It means getting to files through more layers of security and, in the case of sensitive information, cracking the encryptions that protect them.

Even with the network down, the hospital’s emergency room continued to treat patients, and perform elective surgeries and other outpatient services. The Atlantic General Health System offices also remained open over the last week, and patients were still reporting for treatment at the John H. “Jack” Burbage Regional Cancer Center, pulmonary function center, wound and endoscopy centers, and the facility’s behavioral health crisis center.

The hospital outpatient walk-in laboratory has been closed since the cybersecurity attack, and patients set for imaging have been asked to reschedule their appointments until further notice.

The attack is similar to one that occurred a little over a year ago within the Maryland Department of Health network. Hackers took the system hostage, and it took weeks to bring it back online. That strike was one of more than 3,000 ransomware events that have occurred nationwide over the past two years, according to the Federal Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency.

Agency officials, members of the FBI and others have publicly said the threat of these attacks has grown considerably since the pandemic, as criminals deploy malicious software — “phishing” — in fake emails and spam, and gain access to systems through some less secure connections that many people use to get into their office servers while working from home.

Hospital officials did not indicate whether a ransom demand has been made or whether they plan to pay if one exists.

According to numerous sources, 14 ransomware attacks have been made in the U.S. so far this year, with state and local governments the hardest hit.