Hepatitis C testing advised for 936 hospital patients

Investigation reveals they may have been exposed

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter


Updated: May 20, 2014, 4:07 PM


Did you know?

• Hepatitis C is a contagious liver disease that ranges in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a serious, lifelong illness that damages the liver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

• Many people with hepatitis C do not have any symptoms. The CDC estimates 3.2 million people in the U.S. have a chronic hepatitis C virus infection but don’t know they’re infected because they don’t look or feel sick.

• Hepatitis C is spread primarily through contact with the blood of an infected person.

For more information

Patients with questions are encouraged to visit PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center’s website, www.peacehealth.org/hepc, send an email to hepc@peacehealth.org or call the patient care support line, 360-729-2000, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. seven days a week.

Clark County Public Health and PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center are advising 936 former hospital patients to be tested for hepatitis C.

A joint investigation revealed the patients may have been exposed to the contagious, blood-borne liver disease through the actions of a former PeaceHealth Southwest employee suspected of diverting drugs for personal use.

Public health and hospital officials on May 19 mailed certified letters to the patients who may have been exposed to the virus. All of the patients — most of whom, if not all, are adults — received care from the employee in question and were administered drugs during the course of their stay at the hospital, said Sy Johnson, the hospital’s chief executive officer.

Hospital officials are “exercising a great deal of caution” with the testing recommendations, Johnson said.

“We still do not have evidence that any patient was exposed to the hepatitis C virus” at the hospital, he said.

The testing will be performed at the expense of the hospital, as will any treatment for those who test positive, Johnson said. Dr. Alan Melnick, health officer and administrator of Clark County Public Health, does not expect a large number of positive tests.

“We still believe the risk is really low,” Melnick said. “There is no evidence of an outbreak.”

What officials do know is that a person with no known risk factors for hepatitis C was diagnosed with the virus in December 2012, a few months after receiving care at the hospital, and that the former employee in question is suspected of taking hospital drugs for personal use.

The hospital does not have any evidence the former employee infected that patient or any other patients. But the employee’s suspected drug diversion and direct involvement in the patient’s care prompted health officials to take another look at the case.

Health officials also combed through all known cases of hepatitis C in the county during the last two years and found no other cases with ties to PeaceHealth Southwest, Melnick said.

Drug diversion

Diverting drugs refers to a person taking some or all of a medication prescribed to another person and using the drugs for personal use. The diverted drugs are often scheduled drugs, such as narcotic pain medications.

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, Melnick said. That behavior could expose a person to a disease spread by contact with infected blood, such as hepatitis C, he said.

Hospital and health officials have not said whether the former employee has, or had, hepatitis C. Johnson did say, however, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed blood samples from the former employee and the patient diagnosed with hepatitis C in 2012 to determine whether there was a link. The results were inconclusive, he said.

The hospital was alerted to the possible drug diversion in February by a few “courageous employees” who reported the strange behavior of the employee in question, Johnson said. The employees suggested their co-worker was exhibiting signs of substance abuse, he said.

Armed with “reasonable suspicion” that the employee was diverting controlled substances, hospital officials removed the employee in question from patient care. The employee left the organization in March, though hospital officials are not disclosing whether the person quit or was fired.

Hospital officials aren’t disclosing what position the employee held or in which department the employee worked in order to protect the person’s privacy since officials have no evidence of criminal activity, Johnson said.

The investigation, however, is ongoing. The appropriate provider licensing agency at the state health department is involved in the investigation, and the Vancouver Police Department is aware of the situation, Melnick said.

Health officials also have been working closely with the CDC. If any of the 936 patients advised to be tested are diagnosed with the virus, their blood samples will be sent to a CDC lab for genetic sequencing that could determine whether the cases are connected, Melnick said.

Health officials expect the test results will trickle in over the next several weeks.

Hospital and public health officials have set up three temporary centers in the county where patients can be tested. Patients can also elect to be tested by their primary care provider or at another location. Some of the notified patients reside in other counties and states, Melnick said.

“We want every one of those 936 people to have the opportunity to be tested,” he said. “This may be overkill, but we don’t want to take any chances on this.”