Vaping-related illnesses on the rise in Utah, health officials warn

A West Valley City man was in a medically induced coma due to pneumonia apparently caused by vaping, his family said — one of 10 severe cases of vaping-related illnesses the state is investigating this week.

Sean Bills, 31, was on life support for more than 24 hours Wednesday and Thursday at Jordan Valley Hospital, his wife, Tiffani Bills, said. “He was fine one day, and the next day he thought maybe he was getting a cold,” she said. “It just kept getting worse from there. Within three days we ended up in the ER [emergency room]."

Nationwide, more than 150 people in 16 states have developed similar ailments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The sudden rise in vaping-related illnesses has startled and mystified public health officials as multiple patients report initially mild symptoms that in some cases have escalated into full-blown crises.

On Monday, the Utah Department of Health was investigating five cases potentially related to vaping. That grew to 10 cases by Wednesday, “and I can tell you that that number is growing,” spokeswoman Rebecca Ward told The Salt Lake Tribune on Thursday.

The state health department is encouraging doctors who see patients with respiratory illness to ask if they’ve vaped or used THC in some form. “It’s not a standard question — ‘Oh, do you vape?’” Ward said. “But it’s one that we need to ask now.”

A father of three, Sean Bills began to feel shortness of breath and abdominal pain about a week ago, Tiffani Bills said Thursday. They visited an urgent care clinic, and he was diagnosed with intestinal gas, she said. After laxatives and gas relief did not help, they returned to urgent care Saturday and were given antibiotics. Sean Bills was in increasing pain and vomiting, his wife said — a symptom that others have suffered during the onset of vaping-related illnesses, the CDC reported.

At the ER, doctors took a chest X-ray and admitted him immediately. On Wednesday, his oxygen levels were dropping and doctors induced a coma. "He couldn’t breathe on his own,” Tiffani Bills said. “His lungs were having to work way too hard. He couldn’t do it.”

Tiffani Bills said she and her husband vaped daily for two years. “We quit smoking and started vaping,” she said. “Vaping was supposed to be the healthier alternative.”

Doctors told her they believe Sean Bills is suffering from lipoid pneumonia, likely caused by inhaling fat particles, as first reported by FOX 13.

Health officials don’t know why there’s a sudden outbreak in Utah and nationwide, or whether the illnesses have been occurring for much longer and have only recently been recognized as potentially tied to vaping.

“We don’t know the cause. It is truly as a result of vaping? That’s what we’re investigating,” Ward said. “It’s such a new phenomenon that it’s really challenging for the clinicians. Nobody has a really good answer at this point.”

In many cases, patients have reported a gradual onset of breathing difficulty and/or chest pain; some had mild to moderate gastrointestinal illness as well, the CDC said.

Many of the patients nationwide have acknowledged recently using products that contain tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the CDC said, but investigators have not linked any specific product or compound to all the illnesses.

“Is it one source? One flavor? It’s taken them a long time to kind of tease [out] what the culprit is,” said physician Dixie Harris, a pulmonology and critical care specialist at Intermountain Healthcare. “My stance right now, until we really get to the bottom of this: I don’t think anybody should be vaping any oil stuff, whether flavored nicotine, essential oils, marijuana oil."

In lipoid pneumonia cases, like Sean Bills’ illness, oil particles make their way to the tiny air sacs in the lungs, Harris said.

“Our lungs are not designed to dissolve oil,” she said. “If you put enough in, the question is, are you just coating the air sacs so they can’t work?”

But not much is known about other possible causes of vaping-related health problems, she said.

“We worry [that] some of the flavoring can break down into toxic substances. Nicotine can cause irritation, and then you could have inflammation and physical blockage. And the amount of nicotine; are you adding nicotine toxicity, in addition to these other substances?” Harris asked.

State health officials now are “considering an investigation to go back and look at earlier cases, just to see if there’s some link to vaping,” Ward said. Some states are looking at cases dating back to June, she said.

That was the month that Utahn Kristine Woolsey was admitted to Davis Hospital with sepsis and acute respiratory distress syndrome. Woolsey said she felt tired and achy, so she went to bed — and slept through the night and the entire next day. After another night of deep sleep, she awoke in a panic.

“I was having a really hard time breathing,” said Woolsey, a 36-year-old from Layton. “I couldn’t talk. I could only get one word out, then take a deep breath and get another word out.”

Woolsey’s oxygen levels were perilously low, and she was hospitalized for 12 days, spending at least a day or two in a medically induced coma. When she was discharged, she remained on oxygen for a while and won’t return to her job in a call center until next week.

Initially, Woolsey was skeptical of doctors’ conclusion that vaping had contributed to her illness; she had vaped for 10 years, thinking it was a healthy alternative to cigarettes, and never suffered ill effects, she said.

But a month or so after her hospital stay, she tried vaping again and then checked her oxygen levels on an at-home meter she bought online. “Within a week, my oxygen dropped again,” she said.

Woolsey said she immediately decided to give up vaping for good. And that’s why Tiffani Bills said she was sharing her husband’s story.

“If we can prevent some other people from getting sick like he did, that’s what our goal is,” Tiffani Bills said. Since her husband was admitted, she said, she’s persuaded eight friends and family members to quit. A relative in Las Vegas on Wednesday planned to seek care after noticing similar symptoms.

A GoFundMe account to help with Sean Bills’ mounting medical costs can be found here.

Looking back, Tiffani Bills said, “I would sometimes get dizzy after taking a puff." In the past she chalked that up to exhaustion from working graveyard shifts; now, she said, she wonders how close she came to more serious illness.

If people are vaping and develop breathing difficulty, chest pain or gastrointestinal illness, they should contact their health care provider immediately, Ward said.

And patients who believe they have been sickened since June because of vaping may call the Utah Department of Health Bureau of Epidemiology at 801-538-6191.

“We are trying to get to the bottom of this,” Ward said. “These things are coming in fast and furiously.”

Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this report.

Editor’s note • The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13 are content-sharing partners.