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News / Health / Clark County Health

PeaceHealth COVID outbreak traced to patient; 3 of 4 infected workers unvaccinated

PeaceHealth does not require employees to be vaccinated

By Meg Wochnick, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 19, 2021, 12:50pm

PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center officials provided more details Monday surrounding a COVID-19 outbreak within the hospital that resulted in several mostly unvaccinated patients and health care workers testing positive for the virus.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Lawrence Neville confirmed at a media briefing the number of positive cases remains at 14 — 10 patients and four health care workers — and the outbreak is limited to a second-floor ward at the hospital’s Mother Joseph building.

Of the 14 COVID-19 positive cases detected, only five are fully vaccinated. Neville also added that only one of the four health care workers who tested positive is fully vaccinated. Two are not vaccinated, and another had received their first dose of the vaccine, Neville said.

Symptoms of the unvaccinated patients who tested positive range from mild to severe, Neville said, and none have required a transfer to the intensive care unit.

PeaceHealth does not require employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

When pressed to explain why, Neville said most health care systems don’t require vaccinations of staff.

He did, however, say this latest exposure “does make one pause.”

Neville didn’t specify if the decision by health care providers to be unvaccinated stem from political divides or medical debates. Instead, he said, there is a “diversity of health care workers with different options and different sources of information for vaccine safety.”

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He added he believes the medical community supports COVID-19 vaccination, but it’s not yet a universal opinion.

“We do value our relationship with our caregivers, and we continue to engage in dialogue with them,” Neville said. He said further strategies are being reviewed to mandating staff vaccinations, but he was unable to elaborate on what those efforts might be.

Legacy Health Systems also does not require vaccination for employees. A Legacy spokesperson said its system follows a 1989 State of Oregon Law prohibiting Oregon health care employers from requiring vaccinations as a condition of employment. That also includes Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center.

Officials are now investigating what led to the PeaceHealth outbreak, which began with a patient testing positive for COVID-19 after their admission to the hospital July 10. Neville said the individual initially tested negative for the virus, but as an “added layer of protection” all patients have subsequent testing during their stay. That person tested positive July 11.

Catherine Kroll, PeaceHealth’s director of infection prevention, said the hospital has identified and notified 44 patients who might have been exposed or named a close contact.

It’s the first outbreak at the hospital since January, when 19 patients and 11 staffers tested positive for COVID-19. Like in January, Clark County Public Health is again working closely with PeaceHealth on this latest outbreak.

‘Wake-up call’

Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said this situation is another reminder the pandemic is far from over, and that vaccinations make a difference.

Nationally, case numbers continue to climb, and with it comes the new delta variant. Neville and Melnick said all those in this latest outbreak are being tested for the delta variant and other possible unknown variants. In Washington, Melnick said the delta variant is responsible for 41 percent of current cases.

“The best protection against COVID is vaccination,” Melnick said.

As a precaution to the outbreak, the hospital is temporarily stopping all visitors and halting new admissions to the ward. Neville echoed Melnick in speaking to the importance of vaccines, and he strongly encouraged those who remain unvaccinated to get a vaccine.

“The energy around vaccinations needs to increase — even more than it already has,” Neville said.

He concluded by stating: “If a place as safe as PeaceHealth Southwest, with extraordinary experience taking care of COVID patients, and an extraordinary public safety record can have an outbreak like this, it really shows that we are all extremely vulnerable to COVID reemerging.

“This really is a wake-up call; if it can happen here, it can happen everywhere.”