A top health official for a Vancouver hospital system said he doesn’t know how COVID-19 spread from one patient to another 29 people, including 18 additional patients, and the hospital can’t rule out a more transmissible form of the coronavirus.
The cause of the December outbreak at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center remains under investigation. But Dr. Lawrence Neville, chief medical center for PeaceHealth Columbia Network, said Monday that the Vancouver hospital’s COVID-19 cluster can be traced back to one patient who initially tested negative upon admission to the hospital only to test positive days later.
“This is an unfortunate anomaly that this occurred,” Neville said during a news conference with reporters.
Patients who are admitted and test negative for the virus aren’t required to wear masks but are encouraged to do so, Neville said, and the patient in question was wearing a mask.
It’s unclear how many of the other infected patients were not wearing masks but Neville said the hospital is “doubling down” and intensifying its efforts around mask compliance. Neville did not specifically say what that entails, and it does not appear masks would be required for all patients. Vaccines are, similarly, not required for employees.
He said the outbreak is emblematic of how prevalent the disease is in Vancouver and the surrounding community. As of Monday, Clark County reported 976 active cases and 13,692 known cases throughout the pandemic. Neville said PeaceHealth’s Vancouver hospital has a record 56 COVID patients actively, with eight of those individuals receiving intensive care.
The hospital first became aware Dec. 27 of the positive test for the patient at the center of the outbreak. By the next day, two other patients on the medical ward were asymptomatic but tested positive for the virus. Officials closed the ward to all new patients a day later and each COVID-positive patient was moved to a different ward.
“We tested all the patients in the hospital just to make sure the issue was isolated to this one unit,” Neville said, “and it was.”
Initial figures released by the hospital last week indicated 30 patients tested positive, but Neville said that information was not accurate, and the tally included both patients and employees.
As of Monday, 56 healthcare workers remained quarantined as a precaution due to the 11 confirmed cases among staffers. Neville said some of those infected workers had already received their first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
PeaceHealth said it submitted samples Monday to determine if the COVID-19 is a mutated form of the virus, which has been seen in several states and prompted the United Kingdom to issue a new wave of lockdowns.
Neville said it “is not impossible” that the outbreak could be tied to that more transmissible form of the virus, but he said the same prevention strategies of handwashing, personal protective equipment and limited social interactions would apply.
He said results won’t be known for another 10 to 14 days on the genomic sequencing to see if Washington has the fast-spreading COVID variant documented elsewhere.
The initial patient who first tested negative was hospitalized for a medical necessity, Neville said, not an elective surgery. The hospital has since further restricted its surgeries and closed down the infected ward for deep cleaning starting Jan. 1.
Neville said the 19 patients and 11 workers infected are “doing well,” saying he wasn’t aware of anyone in that cluster being admitted to the ICU as of Sunday.
Oregon has had its share of workplace outbreaks at hospitals, including 29 cases at Providence Portland Medical Center, with the most recent case on Christmas Day. Other workplace outbreaks at medical centers in Oregon include Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg (61), McKenzie Willamette Medical Center in Springfield (33) and others.