A COVID-19 outbreak in one of PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center’s wards has infected 10 patients and four workers at the hospital.
Clark County Public Health announced on July 19 it is working with PeaceHealth to investigate the outbreak. During a remote press conference that day, PeaceHealth Chief Medical Officer Lawrence Neville said the first patient involved in the outbreak was tested on July 10, with PeaceHealth becoming aware of the positive test the following day.
That patient tested positive in a follow-up test, as upon admission all patients are tested and placed in a ward specific for COVID-19 if the test comes back positive, Neville said. The first patient’s initial negative test could have happened because the patient did not have enough viral load at the time of the first test, or they could have been exposed to the virus while in the hospital, he explained.
Of the workers, two were unvaccinated and one was in the process of vaccination, with the fourth worker fully vaccinated, Neville said. He said hospital employees are not required to get vaccinated, which he said is similar to other health systems.
Neville said PeaceHealth has “far more than the majority” of its workers vaccinated, estimating the number lands at about 75 percent. He said there aren’t plans to require vaccinations for workers, though he noted there are mitigation plans in the works to lessen the risk for unvaccinated employees.
Neville said five of the 14 cases occurred in fully vaccinated individuals. Of those five, he said all were “completely asymptomatic” and were only identified after testing.
“You may still have a small chance of getting COVID, but your chance of getting severe COVID or even symptomatic COVID is dramatically reduced,” Neville said.
Those who were unvaccinated and tested positive experienced symptoms in the mild to more severe range, he said, though as of the press conference, none of those cases required intensive care.
Neville said the hospital stopped allowing visitors into the facility temporarily over the weekend. He also noted the hospital stopped new admissions to the affected ward and tested all patients in that unit and an adjacent one.
Catherine Kroll, director of infection prevention for PeaceHealth, said those investigating the outbreak believe it could have come from three sources — a visitor who came into the facility, a patient who was “incubating” the virus and didn’t initially test positive upon admission, or a worker at the hospital who came to work while unknowingly being infected with COVID-19.
As of the press conference, Kroll said all patients discharged from the ward who were at risk have already been contacted. Forty-four discharged patients were contacted, and none reported having COVID symptoms, she said.
Clark County Public Health Director and Health Officer Alan Melnick said the outbreak is a reminder that the pandemic is not over. Melnick noted cases have been increasing nationally with the delta variant of COVID-19, which he said is more transmissible than other variants. The latest state-level data he saw showed that variant was responsible for more than 41 percent of the current cases in Washington.
“The best protection against COVID-19 is vaccination,” Melnick said, adding 62 percent of Clark County residents 16 and older have started the vaccination process and 56 percent are fully vaccinated as of the press conference.
Melnick said all of the cases in the outbreak are being tested for variants. He also said vaccinated individuals who were infected with COVID-19 have lower viral loads, leading to them being less likely to transmit the disease. He added the number of breakthrough cases — ones where vaccinated individuals catch the disease — is .07 percent in Washington.
Melnick said the greater percentage of breakthrough cases in PeaceHealth’s outbreak is likely due to the small sample size.
“If we were to test the entire population, we would likely see more infections … in people who were unvaccinated,” Melnick said.
Neville also said the outbreak is a reminder that COVID-19 is still in Clark County.
“If a place as safe as PeaceHealth Southwest, with extraordinary experience taking care of COVID patients and an extraordinary public safety record, can have an outbreak like this, it really shows that we are all extremely vulnerable to COVID re-emerging,” Neville said. “This really is a wake-up call that if it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”