A former Utah nurse pleaded guilty Wednesday to federal charges, admitting that she stole hospital painkillers and infected seven patients with a rare strain of hepatitis C.
Elet Neilson, 53, agreed to a plea deal that allows U.S. District Judge Dee Benson to sentence her to prison for up to 10 years.
She pleaded guilty to two counts of tampering with a consumer product and two counts of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance. A dozen similar charges were dismissed as part of the deal.
In plea agreement documents, Neilson admitted that when she was an emergency room nurse at McKay-Dee Hospital in Ogden, she diverted painkillers meant for patients and injected herself with the drugs before administering the drugs to others. As a result, seven people contracted the same strain of hepatitis C that Neilson has.
When Benson asked her if this description of events was accurate, Neilson agreed.
“I do take full responsibility,” she said.
The woman wiped tears from her eyes as she left the courtroom.
She’ll be sentenced on Dec. 5 and Benson agreed to sentence her to a range between zero months and 10 years.
Federal prosecutor Sam Pead said after the hearing that he’s not sure yet whether he’ll ask for the maximum penalty, saying he needed to consult with the victims first.
Though Neilson pleaded guilty to infecting seven patients, the Utah Department of Health estimated that at least 16 people were infected with the disease. State officials estimated that the former nurse exposed as many as 7,200 patients to the hepatitis C genotype B strain.
Of those patients, roughly 4,800 were treated at McKay-Dee Hospital — where Neilson worked from June 2013 to November 2014— and 2,369 were at Davis Hospital and Medical Center, in Layton, where Neilson worked between 2012 and 2014.
Neilson admitted to taking drugs from her employer while working at both hospitals, according to Utah Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing records. She surrendered her nursing license in November 2015, a month after health officials began offering free testing to the thousands of patients who came into contact with her at the two hospitals and were given certain medications.
Ogden police concluded in a report that it did not appear that Neilson intentionally tried to pass on the disease, and Weber County prosecutors later declined to file charges against her in connection to the hepatitis C outbreak.
This is the first time federal prosecutors in Utah have taken on a case like Neilson’s. Similar cases have been reported nationwide, including a case of a traveling radiology technician who infected 30 patients with the virus in a multistate outbreak. That technician was sentenced to serve 39 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to 14 charges similar to Neilson’s.