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OGDEN — The state health department is investigating the possibility that thousands of patients at McKay-Dee Hospital were exposed to hepatitis C after a patient and a former nurse tested positive for the same strain of the virus.
Authorities are concerned that the nurse, who was fired last year for diverting medications, may have exposed patients to the virus.
Health care providers who tamper with syringes or other injection equipment to steal medications — called "drug diversion" — expose patients to potential infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Angela Dunn, a medical epidemiologist with the CDC stationed at the Utah Department of Health, said officials can't be sure if that's what happened at McKay-Dee Hospital.
"We aren't able to say definitively with this investigation, but that's why we're taking it so seriously and notifying all patients who might be potentially exposed," Dunn said.
On Oct. 30, the hospital sent letters to 4,800 patients informing them that they may have been exposed to the virus. About 150 of them live outside of Utah, according to hospital spokesman Chris Dallin.
Only patients who received certain medications at the emergency department between June 17, 2013, and Nov. 25, 2014, are potentially affected, Dallin said.
Although health officials don't know for sure who was the source of the infection, Dallin stressed it is "very unlikely" the patient passed the virus to the nurse.
He declined to comment on how the hospital knows that, citing the ongoing investigation.
Ogden police identified the former employee in question as Elet Neilson, also known as Elet Hamblin, 49, of Layton.
Dallin said Neilson was fired last November after the hospital confronted her with evidence she had diverted medications.
According to a Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing newsletter, Neilson's license was also suspended in December last year.
The hospital is offering free blood tests to patients potentially affected, and hours of operation in the lab have been extended to accommodate them, according to Dallin.
"We know the risk is low, but not zero," Dunn said. "So it's important that people get tested if they are indeed on that potential exposure list."
The most common way the virus is spread in the U.S. is through injection drug use, according to the CDC, or other contact with infected blood. The virus cannot be spread by casual contact, including through saliva, breast-feeding, or food and water.
Although hepatitis C is the most common blood-borne infection in the U.S., Dunn emphasized that most people who carry the virus won't feel symptoms for up to 25 years. Left untreated, the virus can cause severe liver damage and even death.
CDC investigators have identified four hepatitis C outbreaks between 2004 and 2014 that stemmed from hospital health care workers diverting drugs.
Addiction to prescription painkillers is a "major driver" of the problem, according to the CDC.
The state health department is notified of every positive hepatitis C test.
Dunn said Utah health officials first became concerned after the McKay-Dee patient tested positive for the virus but did not have any of the common risk factors, such as intravenous drug use.
Health officials then learned that the patient had recently been treated at the hospital's emergency department and that an employee there had been fired for "diversion-related activities," according to Dunn.
The former employee was "very, very cooperative throughout the investigation," Dunn said.
The hospital was notified about the possible connection in September and worked with the health department to create a list of every patient who had "any possibility" of contact with Neilson during work hours, according to Dallin.
On its website, the health department explained that it waited to notify patients until authorities could confirm the disease and set up follow-up testing.
"We believe that the free blood test and law enforcement investigation will reveal additional information," Dallin said.
Contributing: Nkoyo Iyamba
Daphne Chen is a reporter for the Deseret News and KSL.com. Contact her at email@example.com.