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Federal prosecutors this week filed charges against a former Utah nurse believed to have stolen hospital painkillers and exposed patients to hepatitis C.
Elet Neilson, 50, was indicted Wednesday in U.S. District Court on eight counts of tampering with a consumer product and another eight counts of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance.
Prosecutors allege that Neilson, who also goes by the name Elet Hamblin, diverted morphine and the narcotic dilaudid and injected herself with the drugs before administering the drugs to others. As a result, seven people were infected with a rare strain of hepatitis C, which Neilson has, according to charging records.
Health officials believe Neilson may have exposed as many as 7,200 patients to the hepatitis C genotype B strain. Of those patients, roughly 4,800 were treated at Ogden's 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.
All seven who contracted the disease were treated at McKay-Dee Hospital, according to federal prosecutors.
If convicted as charged, Neilson faces a potential penalty of 20 years in federal prison for each count of tampering, and four years for each charge of obtaining a fraudulent prescription. No court dates have been set.
Neilson has 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 to other patients, and Weber County prosecutors later declined to file charges against her in connection to the hepatitis C outbreak.
Neilson's federal case is part of a national health care fraud enforcement action by the Medicare Fraud Strike Force, according to the Department of Justice.
More than 400 defendants were charged Wednesday, including health care professionals accused of fraudulent billing schemes and in connection to opioid distribution.
U.S. Attorney for Utah John Huber noted during a Thursday news conference that about a quarter of the cases involve opioid-related fraud a number he said illustrates the deep nature of opioid abuse in Utah and the nation.
"I hope to send this message to lawbreakers, especially within the opioid crisis," Huber said. "When you victimize others because of your greed and your selfishness, we will bring you to justice and you will pay a very high price for those selfish decisions."
Huber said his office has never seen a case like Neilson's in Utah before. Similar cases have been reported nationwide, including a case of a traveling radiology technician who infected 30 people with the virus in a multi-state outbreak.
"This is just terrible," Huber said. "This is a nightmare for a patient who [is] at the most vulnerable time in their life ... when you think you're being treated by people who care and want to make you better and to have someone with apparently selfish motives and desires expose you to a risk you would never be exposed to otherwise."