Health officials are investigating whether a former PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center worker exposed patients to hepatitis C.
A few weeks ago, the medical center and Clark Public Health launched an investigation into whether the disease was possibly spread to patients through the employee, who left in March. Hepatitis C is a contagious, blood-borne liver disease that can spread through the use of contaminated needles or other medical equipment.
So far in this case, there are no proven instances of hepatitis C transmission from the employee to any patients, and “we think the risk is really pretty low,” Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County public health director, said this afternoon during a press conference at the Vancouver medical center. “We have no evidence that this former employee actually did expose anybody to hepatitis C.”
What officials do know is that a patient with no known risk factors was treated for hepatitis C in the summer of 2012, and the employee in question is suspected of taking hospital drugs for personal use, PeaceHealth spokesman Tim Strickland said.
Hepatitis C is fairly common, Melnick said, and there are many ways of contracting the disease. It’s possible, if the employee diverted drugs through unsafe or unsanitary practices — such as sharing a hospital IV — that the employee might have spread hepatitis C to patients.
The employee began working midway through 2012 in one of the hospital’s departments. Although officials wouldn’t say if the employee was fired from the hospital or quit, Melnick said the employee has been cooperating with the public health investigation. Investigators will comb through medical records to determine who might have received care from the former employee and might be at risk.
The investigation is supposed to be finished by May 20, at which point letters will be mailed to those patients possibly at risk, who will be urged to receive hepatitis C testing at the expense of PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center. Any resulting treatment for hepatitis C would also be covered by the hospital.
“Our caregivers work hard every day to heal and help patients,” said Sy Johnson, CEO and chief mission officer of the PeaceHealth Columbia Network. “We are all deeply troubled by this discovery.”
He also apologized to the patients who might be impacted.
“We take this very seriously,” Johnson said. “I apologize for the anxiety this is certain to cause our patients and their loved ones.”
Patients with questions about the possible exposure can call 360-729-2000, a hotline that goes live at 9 a.m. Tuesday, or visit peacehealth.org/hepc.
The vast majority of people with hepatitis C aren’t aware that they have it, Melnick said. The symptoms are vomiting, nausea, fever and jaundice. It also can spread by being born to an infected mother; by sharing razors, toothbrushes or other items that come into contact with blood; and in rare instances through sexual contact.