The numbers have grown slowly, but they’re growing nonetheless: An outbreak of hepatitis C linked to Puyallup’s Good Samaritan Hospital continues to generate new confirmed cases.
Wednesday, experts from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department released the latest numbers from ongoing testing that began following the April 30 announcement of the outbreak.
That number now stands at 12 confirmed cases, all genetically linked to the same strain of the virus. When the outbreak was first announced, hospital and health department leaders said two cases were genetically linked.
That was almost three months ago. Since then, 1,858 patients out of an estimated 2,758 have been tested for hepatitis C. Most results have been negative.
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The health department also has identified 53 patients with the hepatitis C virus deemed unrelated to the outbreak at the hospital. Another five cases remain under investigation; the patients have the hepatitis C virus, but the linkage to the outbreak remains unclear.
The 12 patients linked to the same genetic strain of the virus received treatment at Good Samaritan between Aug. 4, 2017 and March 23 of this year — 11 of 12 were treated last December in the hospital’s emergency department.
They share another common denominator: All received intravenous injections from Cora Weberg, 31, a nurse who worked at Good Samaritan during the period in question.
Puyallup police arrested Weberg in early May on suspicion of second-degree assault. She was subsequently released without criminal charges being filed.
While she acknowledged diverting injectable drugs to aid in a suicide attempt, she denied injecting patients with needles she’d used on herself. The state Department of Health subsequently suspended Weberg’s nursing license following an investigation,
While Weberg treated the patients, she hasn’t been linked to the virus they contracted. She’s been tested multiple times for hepatitis C. The results show only that antibodies in her system have battled the virus — the tests have not revealed the genetic strain linked to the Good Samaritan patients.
The investigation of Weberg did not complete the inquiry. Health Department experts tested two other Good Samaritan employees. Only Weberg showed signs of prior exposure to the virus. In June, experts from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said the source of the outbreak remained unclear. Communicable disease division director Nigel Turner said, “I’m not sure we’ll ever know,”
The agency recently updated its website with questions and answers about the possible origins of the outbreak.
“We believe the source of the infection was contaminated medicine, needle, syringe, or equipment used by a former healthcare worker who may have been taking some of these medications for personal use,” one statement reads.
The suspension of Weberg’s nursing license represented only one aspect of the state’s inquiry. In recent weeks, the Department of Health has completed three separate but related investigations of Good Samaritan, the hospital pharmacy and a pharmacist who works there, according to spokesman Gordon MacCraken. All three are in the “case disposition” stage, awaiting further action.
“That means the investigation is complete, and the process is underway to decide whether or how to proceed,” MacCraken said, adding that he could not say how long the decision-making process would take.
Marce Edwards, spokeswoman for MultiCare, said hospital leaders accept the state’s scrutiny as standard procedure.
“The Department of Health evaluates health care facilities in the state and their review of Good Samaritan’s operations was appropriate following our notification of the Hepatitis C exposure,” she said. “We welcome their review and assessment.”
About 900 Good Samaritan patients still haven’t been tested for the hepatitis C virus. Health department and hospital leaders continue to urge those patients to be tested, free of charge.
“We are confident that we have identified those patients who were potentially exposed and who needed to be tested,” Edwards said.
More information about testing procedures and locations appears online at https://www.multicare.org/safety-alert/.