Nurse arrested for allegedly infecting two patients with hepatitis C
Cora Weberg, the 31-year-old nurse arrested last week in connection with a possible outbreak of hepatitis C at Puyallup's Good Samaritan Hospital, was released from the Pierce County jail late Friday with no charges filed against her.
"She’s been NCF’d pending further investigation," said James Lynch, spokesman for the Pierce County Prosecutor's office. "The case is still in the works. They're just waiting for more information to come in."
While Weberg hasn't been charged with a crime, her nursing license was suspended Monday by the state Nursing Care Quality Assurance Commission (NCQAC), according to records from the state Department of Health.
The state records say Weberg admitted to investigators that she "diverted injectable fentanyl and hydromorphone from the hospital for her personal use." Reportedly, she withdrew controlled substances from a medication-storage machine and failed to document the associated waste material.
The records also say that Weberg told the commission she had been informed several years ago that she tested positive for hepatitis C after donating blood. The allegation undercuts statements made last week by hospital leaders and Weberg's defenders, who said she had been "surprised" to learn she tested positive for hepatitis C in late March.
The state's findings led to the license suspension and charges of unprofessional conduct and violations of nursing standards, the records say.
Weberg's defense attorney, Bryan Hershman, said his client denies deliberately infecting hospital patients with the virus. He added that the decision by Puyallup police to arrest her was premature.
"She never stuck herself with a needle and then stuck a patient with a needle. That is just preposterous," Hershman said. "They didn’t have sufficient evidence to charge her. How about that? (Prosecutors) scratched their head, and they said, 'Get her out of jail.' They’re still investigating, but God bless 'em for being ethical."
Police arrested Weberg on Thursday night in Blaine at the U.S.-Canada border. She was booked into jail on suspicion of second-degree assault. A preliminary statement of probable cause filed by police said Weberg "intentionally contaminated medicine or another substance with her own blood" and then administered it to patients.
According to Hershman, Weberg was headed for a planned vacation to Guam with her boyfriend and mother-in-law to visit relatives when she was arrested. Hershman said his client wasn't fleeing the country and had told investigators from the state Department of Health about her trip beforehand.
Experts from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department track hepatitis C diagnoses as a matter of routine duty. The virus is a "notifiable condition," said department spokeswoman Edie Jeffers. Special circumstances such as the apparent outbreak at Good Samaritan Hospital are investigated in conjunction with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The link to Weberg surfaced after health department investigators determined that two Good Samaritan patients developed hepatitis C after receiving emergency department treatment in December. Analysis determined that both patients had no prior history of the virus and that they contracted it from the same genetic source.
Whether that source was Weberg remains uncertain, but she treated both patients and injected both of them with drugs intended for pain relief.
Subsequent investigation and testing showed that Weberg also tested positive for the hepatitis C virus, but results were limited. Investigators could not find sufficient genetic material to show that the virus linked to Weberg matched the version associated with the two patients.
Hepatitis C is a bloodborne disease, typically transmitted through shared needles or sexual activity. Some people have it and don't know it, and it's five times more common among people born between 1945 and 1965, according to Health Department information.
The discovery of the two patients led hospital leaders to announce a public safety alert and send notifications to 2,600 patients treated in the emergency department between Aug. 4, 2017 and March 23 of this year, when Weberg was on duty.
Some of those patients have already been tested. Jeffers, the health department spokeswoman, said the research is ongoing, and results aren't available yet. As they trickle in, part of the investigation will involve determining which patients are connected to the patients already discovered and which ones aren't.
"We know that there will be positives," Jeffers said. "Some will be connected with the events and some won’t be. That process takes time. That’s where we’ll be working with the CDC. That process is several weeks long."
Asked about the possibility that Weberg wasn't the source of the virus the two patients contracted, Jeffers said, "We are doing a disease investigation. We are following the disease investigation where it takes us. That is the detective work that we do every day. If another potential source emerges, we will follow that."
Some parties aren't waiting for definitive results. An unidentified Puyallup man filed a lawsuit Friday against the MultiCare Health System and Good Samaritan Hospital, saying he was infected with hepatitis C after visiting the hospital in December and being treated by Weberg. The man does not appear to be one of the two patients previously identified by hospital leaders.
Hershman, the defense attorney, said his client is facing a rush to judgment that may not be borne out by evidence. He suggested that the uncertainty surrounding the linkage between Weberg and the patients could mean she was exposed to the virus as opposed to transmitting it to others.
"They haven't found a genetic link," he said. "If they had direct blood exposure, that would be a telltale. We’d have her on the blood test. The fact that they don’t have that, that’s what I call a hint, a very sophisticated term. The hint is, she didn’t do this."