Hepatitis C testing, investigation continue

PeaceHealth Southwest, health department probe possible exposure

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter




Previously: Clark County Public Health and PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center advised 936 former hospital patients to be tested for hepatitis C. An investigation revealed they may have been exposed to the disease through the actions of a former hospital employee.

What’s new: Hepatitis C test results have begun to come in. Temporary testing centers will close at 7 p.m. Saturday.

What’s next: Hepatitis C testing and the investigation continue. Health officials will continue to monitor results and release a final report in the coming weeks.

The hepatitis C testing of more than 900 former PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center patients is ongoing and will continue for the next several weeks.

Hospital officials are not releasing the results — or the number of people who have been tested so far — until the joint investigation between the hospital and Clark County Public Health concludes in the coming weeks.

"We think it will be several weeks, possibly well into July, before we have our investigation findings prepared and ready to report out," said Tim Strickland, a spokesman for PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center.

"Because we're mid-investigation, we don't feel comfortable providing interim statistics," he said.

Public health and hospital officials mailed certified letters on May 19 to 936 former hospital patients who may have been exposed to hepatitis C, a contagious, blood-borne liver disease, through the actions of a former PeaceHealth Southwest employee suspected of diverting drugs.

Diverting drugs refers to a person taking some or all of a medication prescribed to another person and using the drugs for personal use. For example, an employee could divert drugs by using a syringe to inject themselves with some of the medication, then use the same syringe to administer the remaining medication to a patient.

Since the letters went out, patients have undergone testing at temporary testing centers or their regular health care provider's office. The temporary centers in Fisher's Landing, Bagley Downs and Salmon Creek are open until 7 p.m. Saturday. After that, patients will need to arrange for testing at other locations.

"Our objective is to get as many as possible in for testing as soon as possible," Strickland said.

All testing is done at the expense of PeaceHealth Southwest, and patients receive their results within seven days, Strickland said.

Rod Nelson of Vancouver was among the 936 patients advised to get tested. He received the letter from health officials on May 19 and headed straight to a testing clinic on Southeast 164th Avenue. Clinic workers told Nelson, 59, he was one of the first to be tested.

"It kind of freaked me out," he said. "I wanted to know."

By the end of the week, the 59-year-old had his test results in hand: negative for hepatitis C.

"I was glad to see this was a negative result," Nelson said. "I just didn't need that to be going on."

Should any of the 936 patients test positive for hepatitis C, additional testing will be performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine whether there is a connection between the virus and the hospital, Strickland said. Treatment will also be provided at the expense of the hospital.

Hepatitis C infection ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness, according to the CDC. Most people have no symptoms, but without treatment, some of those infected will develop chronic liver disease, which can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer, according to the CDC.

While the week of uncertainty left Nelson feeling nervous — he didn't sleep the night before getting the results back — he wasn't surprised to learn of the possible exposure at the hospital.

"In today's world, it wasn't much of a surprise that things like this happen," Nelson said. "Unfortunately, there's a lot of people that you wouldn't suspect of doing things."

"Things happen," he said.

Strickland apologized for the anxiety and inconvenience the investigation is causing patients.

"We are committed to doing the right thing for the right reasons," he said, "and making sure our patients are well is our highest priority."