Health officials have linked two cases of Hepatitis C to a nurse in a Pierce County emergency room who may have shared needles with unwitting patients, hospital officials said Monday.
Leaders of MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup said they've contacted 2,600 patients who received injections in the emergency room while the nurse was on duty.
Hospital leaders have asked those people to get their blood tested for the virus, which affects the liver but is often cured with a two- to three-month course of antiviral medication. However, if untreated, the infection can lead to cirrhosis.
"Patients should be concerned but not nervous," David Bachman, the hospital's chief medical officer, said at a news conference. "The overall risk is low. We're notifying a much greater population beyond those that were directly cared for by this nurse."
Chris Bredeson, the hospital's president, apologized to the two patients who were infected and the others who must be screened.
"This nurse's actions violated our organization's values, and because of this we violated the trust we have with our community," he said.
Health officials used genetic testing to link the two cases of the infection to a common source, and found the patients had visited the same emergency room about 10 days apart in December.
During the investigation, officials discovered the nurse had been stealing narcotics meant for patients.
She was surprised to learn she tested positive for Hepatitis C, Bredeson said.
Hospital officials don't know how exactly how the two infections occurred, he added, but they're operating under the assumption that the nurse injected herself with drugs and then used some of those same needles on her patients.
Officials did not identify the nurse, who worked at the hospital for eight months before resigning amid the investigation on March 23.
Bredeson described her as "experienced," saying she held licenses in three states. She passed a drug test and background check when she was hired at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital, he added.
Washington's Nursing Commission is now investigating her conduct. Hospital officials also said they reported the case to Puyallup police.
Hepatitis C is usually spread by people sharing needles. Infections have increased across the nation in recent years, largely due to rising rates of people injecting drugs like heroin, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Bachman, the chief medical officer, said the case highlights the risk of drug addiction among health care professionals.
"Health care providers are like everybody else in terms of their risk of becoming dependent or addiction to the opioids," he said. "One of the things that complicates matters in that regard is, depending on their role in the institution, they could have more ready access to the medication."
He said the solution involves "getting us all thinking even more than we are already about the risk of the opioid addiction and the things that can stem from it."