Experts from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department say they have discovered seven "probable" new cases of hepatitis C tied to an outbreak at Puyallup's Good Samaritan Hospital, and an additional 12 that require further investigation.
The new cases, announced Wednesday by the health department, reflect information and testing results gathered since April 30, when hospital leaders announced a public safety alert and notified 2,600 patients of the need to be tested for the virus.
The health department's investigation follows a flurry of news tied to the Good Samaritan outbreak.
Hospital leaders announced last week that a nurse who worked in the hospital emergency department between August 2017 and March 2018 might be linked to the first two discovered cases. The nurse, Cora Weberg, no longer works at the hospital.
According to a health department statement and a list of test results posted on its website Wednesday, tests have been conducted on 1,065 patients, and 1,028 showed no signs of the virus. Experts found 16 cases of hepatitis C deemed unrelated to the outbreak.
"These people who may not have otherwise gotten tested now know they have the virus and can get treatment," wrote Kim Desmarais, the agency's viral hepatitis coordinator.
Another 1,696 patients remain to be tested, and the health department plans to provide regular updates of the results.
The seven cases potentially linked to the outbreak are under investigation. The test results will be submitted to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further analysis. An additional 12 cases require further investigation, according to the health department statement.
In a blog post, Desmarais suggested that the number of local cases might be the tip of the iceberg.
"The CDC estimates because so many people have the virus and don’t know it, the county most likely has nearly 14 times as many cases," she wrote. "That’s an estimated 250 people who have hepatitis C in Pierce County."
The hospital cited Weberg as "the common denominator" between the first two discovered cases because she treated the two patients in the emergency department. Health department experts found the patients contracted the virus from the same genetic source.
They have not established the same genetic link to Weberg, who reportedly tested positive for hepatitis C, according to records from the state Department of Health.
Weberg denies the linkage, and denies she is a hepatitis C carrier.
Puyallup police arrested her last week on suspicion of second-degree assault. She was released from jail a day later. No charges were filed against her, and the case is under investigation.
Monday, the state Nursing Commission announced the suspension of Weberg's license, citing unprofessional conduct.
Tuesday, Weberg spoke publicly, and admitted that after administering injectable medications to patients, she took leftover remnants from the hospital and used them for suicide attempts at home. She denied injecting herself and then injecting patients with the same needles.
Health department leaders urge patients who have received notifications from Good Samaritan Hospital to seek testing for the virus, noting that the disease is curable in most cases.
Additional information about testing, including locations, is available online at www.multicare.org/safety-alert/