A Washington state emergency room nurse has resigned and her license has been suspended after accusations that she exposed patients to hepatitis C by stealing narcotics and using her own needle to administer their medication.
Officials with the State Department of Health said Monday that Cora Weberg’s nursing license has been suspended “due to alleged diversion of controlled substances.”
Authorities said Weberg, a 31-year-old former nurse at MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, has admitted to diverting fentanyl and hydromorphone, narcotic pain medications. Police also said that two patients who were under her care in the emergency department in December 2017 were later admitted to the hospital and tested positive for hepatitis C, according to a statement from the health department.
The state health department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined through genetic tests that the two patients derived the disease from a common source, and “charges say Weberg was the only nurse or physician at the hospital who treated both patients,” the statement read.
But Weberg, who was arrested late last week on two counts of second-degree assault, has denied the allegations.
The former nurse said during a news conference Tuesday that she has never “intentionally or unintentionally” used a needle on a patient that she had previously used on herself - saying that “of all the allegations that have been made against me, this is the most awful and it is the allegation that I deny the most.”
Regarding hepatitis C, Weberg said she has undergone drug tests and donated blood but has never been diagnosed with the disease, according to KOMO News. She said she was recently tested again and found to have “a very low level of a pathogen in my blood that can constitute hepatitis C but not at the low levels that are found in my blood.” She said she does not believe she is a “contagious carrier.”
“I have never thought I had hepatitis C,” she said. “I have never intentionally exposed anyone to hepatitis C and it’s beyond my comprehension how I would have even unintentionally exposed someone to hepatitis C.”
After her arrest, Weberg was released from custody pending further investigation in the case.
MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital sent a notice last month to 2,600 patients who were given intravenous narcotics, antihistamines or sedatives in the emergency room from Aug. 4 to March 23, warning them that two patients had been exposed to hepatitis C, most likely in the ER. The hospital said in the letter that it learned “one of our nurses was removing higher-than-normal amounts of narcotics from our dispensing system and admitted to diverting medications intended for patients. She tested positive for hepatitis C and had treated both of the patients we know are infected.”
The hospital has recommended that those who may have been exposed to hepatitis C undergo testing, which the hospital said it will provide at no cost.
Weberg’s attorney, Bryan Hershman, could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday but told the News Tribune that his client has denied accusations that she infected the patients.
“On the one hand, my heart goes out to these infected people,” he told the Tribune. “On the other hand, this investigation has been going on for months. If there was a genetic link between these patients and Cora, you would certainly think it would be definitively announced or released by the Department of Health and that hasn’t happened yet.”
“This is this woman’s life,” he added. “This is a terrible allegation. I hope we all stand back and take a deep breath and really look at what the evidence says.”
Hepatitis C is a blood-borne virus that attacks the liver and is most often contracted by sharing needles or other intravenous drug paraphernalia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In 2016, there were nearly 3,000 reported cases of acute hepatitis C, “a short-term illness that occurs within the first 6 months after someone is exposed to the hepatitis C virus,” according to the CDC.
The CDC states that most people with the virus eventually develop long-term infection; in fact, an estimated 3.5 million people in the United States have chronic hepatitis C, according to the agency.
“Hepatitis C virus infection can last a lifetime and lead to serious liver problems, including cirrhosis (scarring of the liver) or liver cancer,” the CDC says.
The News Tribune reported that in March, local health officials opened an investigation into the infections:
The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, which monitors such cases, connected the infected patients to each other and then to Weberg, who treated the patients. Health department experts, relying on information from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, established that the tests revealed a conclusive link between the two patients and the genetic sources of the virus.
The link to Weberg was less clear, health department leaders found. The viral material from Weberg’s tests was limited and insufficient to show a conclusive genetic link to the patients, though she tested positive for the disease.
During a news conference last week, MultiCare Good Samaritan Hospital president Chris Bredeson apologized to the patients who had been exposed.
“This event should not have happened in any of our facilities and the fact that it did is inconsistent with our values of respect, integrity, stewardship, excellent, collaboration and kindness,” he said. “This nurse’s actions violated our organization’s values and, because of this, we violated the trust we have with our community. We sincerely apologize to the two patients infected and to the patients who now need to be screened.”