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GCHD: County clinic patients potentially exposed to HIV, hepatitis

About 9,500 people treated at dental clinics in Texas City and Galveston over the past three years will be notified about potential exposure to hepatitis and HIV as a result of poor sanitation at the facilities, the Galveston County Health District announced Friday.

After what officials called a “very scary” breach of medical protocols, the district was preparing to activate a medical hotline and offer thousands of free screenings for people who might have been exposed to the diseases.

The concerns about possible infection was first raised 38 days ago. In that time, the district has not identified anyone infected during treatment at the Coastal Health & Wellness Clinics in Texas City and Galveston, said Dr. Philip Keiser, the Galveston County local health authority.

Still, after consulting with state and federal authorities, the district on Friday moved to inform the public about the risk of exposure and begin soliciting former patients to identify themselves and be tested.

“To date, our investigation has not found that anyone was infected as a result of the dental procedures at Coastal Health & Wellness,” Keiser said.

“However, after consulting with the Texas Department of State Health Services, as well as several federal agencies, we have concluded that there is sufficient concern to ask all patients who received dental services at Coastal Health & Wellness between March 15, 2015, and Feb. 12, 2018, to be tested for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV.”

During an accreditation inspection on Feb. 12, officials identified 11 “immediate threat-to-life” violations at the Coastal Health & Wellness dental clinic in Texas City, Keiser said.

He didn’t outline all 11 violations, but said they all involved the cleaning and sterilization of dental instruments used for minor surgeries, such as root canals and tooth extractions. Because the tools potentially weren’t cleaned properly, patients may have been exposed to infectious diseases carried between procedures, Keiser said.

“There are many (violations) about sterilization, about poor sterilization, not adequately documenting sterilizing of dental instruments, dirty areas that were not being properly cleaned where sterile instruments were passing through,” Keiser said. “There was a breakdown of the sterilization.”

The health district suspended all procedures that use sterilized instruments at the clinics in February and began an investigation, Keiser said.

In the past month, district epidemiologists reviewed infection reports of people diagnosed with HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C to determine whether they had any connections to the dental clinic.

So far, none have been found, Keiser said.

The district is most concerned about people treated at the dental clinic in Texas City, but people treated at a Coastal Health & Wellness clinic in Galveston also will be contacted, Keiser said.

He said the district was most concerned about exposure to hepatitis C, he said.

The district is sending letters to former patients who may have been exposed during the three-year time period. It’s also going to open a telephone hotline to answer questions about the warnings. The hotline will be activated at 7:30 a.m. Monday.

The district will allow people to schedule free screening appointments, during which a blood sample will be drawn, Keiser said.

The screening will determine within three to five days whether a person is infected with one of the diseases, Keiser said,

If people test positive for exposure, they’ll be referred for more evaluation and treatment, Keiser said.

“We are happy that we haven’t found anything, but we’re unhappy that we haven’t found enough to say there’s no problem,” Keiser said.

The Coastal Health & Wellness clinics serve patients regardless of their ability to pay and are one of the primary care options for low-income people in Galveston County.

Keiser emphasized during the news conference that Coastal Health & Wellness is an organization with its own board of directors and administrative staff, separate from the health district.

However, the Coastal Health & Wellness bylaws available on its website specify that governing board members are nominated by the health district’s United Board of Health — whose members are nominated by Galveston County Commissioners.

“We want to make sure that there hasn’t been harm done,” Keiser said. “We’re really concerned about the patients at this point. We’re not prepared to issue a final report yet.”

Milton Howard, the chairman of the Coastal Health & Wellness governing board, did not respond to a voicemail left at his dental office in La Marque or to an email sent late Friday afternoon.

In a press release sent at 7 p.m. Friday, Howard said Coastal Health & Wellness had made strides in honing its infection control procedures in the past month.

“Patient safety is our highest priority,” Howard said.

Mary McClure, the executive director of Coastal Health & Wellness, did not respond to a note left with her office on Friday after the news conference.

She did not return a phone call left at the number listed on the Coastal Health & Wellness website, which was directed to an administrative assistant. Her listed email on the Coastal Health & Wellness website is not active.

Keiser said representatives of Coastal Health & Wellness were informed about Friday’s news conference and were invited to attend. He could not explain why they were not there, he said.

The health district has informed local government leaders and the University of Texas Medical Branch about the concerns, he said.

The health district plans, sometime in the future, to issue a report about how the sanitation breaches occurred, Keiser said.

No criminal investigation was underway into the issue, he said.


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City officials, planners work to fight urban sprawl

LEAGUE CITY

Building more residential subdivisions in League City will lead to urban sprawl and could hurt the quality of life for residents, experts said.

City leaders said they wanted to avoid the problems of urban sprawl and are considering ways to slow down unwanted growth while attracting economic development they do want.

The city’s future land use map, a planning document, calls for more commercial uses. The commercial corridor along the future Grand Parkway in undeveloped southwestern League City is an example, city officials said.

Placing mixed-use developments at the new parkway’s major intersections could help prevent urban sprawl, Planning Director David Hoover said. These types of developments have living space mixed in with retail stores, restaurants and office workspaces. Residents can live, work and play all within walking distance.

Mixed-use developments, however, require some forethought from city officials, private developers and residents, he said.

“It’s getting to the point that decisions have to be made,” Hoover said.

Urban sprawl happens when low-density residential developments dominate a community that depends on every adult having a car and that lacks a center of activity, said Shima Hamidi, director of the Institute for Urban Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Christine Drennon, director of Urban Studies program at Trinity University in San Antonio, describes urban sprawl as low-density developments on the edge of town.

“It’s been happening for 100 years,” Drennon said.

It has happened more recently in League City, beginning in 1962 when NASA opened in the Clear Lake area and more people and businesses moved in and built new homes on what was a more rural landscape.

Homeowners account for 79 percent of the tax base in League City, the largest city in Galveston County with a population now of almost 105,000.

Commercial properties represented 21 percent of the tax base in 2016, said Scott Livingston, director of economic development for League City.

For every $1 of tax revenue, U.S. cities on average spend $1.20 on services for residential property, but only 44 cents for commercial property, Livingston said.

League City faces other challenges. About 85 percent of the population commutes, often through congested traffic, Livingston said.

When companies submit economic development proposals to League City, officials would like to be in a position to turn them down if they didn’t meet the city’s requirements. The city could patiently wait for the right company that meets a set of criteria, Livingston said.

One challenge in waiting is that the city’s residential base grows more quickly than its commercial base, Livingston said.

The solution to all those problems is to create more value for residents and potential employers who pay good salaries and add to the tax base, Livingston said. An element of that is improving the quality of life, something the League City Chamber of Commerce has echoed.

Hamidi, who is a co-author of the book “Cost of Sprawl,” crunched the data and found that communities filled with cul-de-sacs are harmful to your health.

Residents living in suburban neighborhoods have a life expectancy that is three years lower than city dwellers, she said.

Also, traffic fatalities are 14 percent higher in areas of urban sprawl, Hamidi said. Residents are dependent on cars, and every person with a job who lives in these areas has to have a car because public transit is not available, she said.

“Cul-de-sacs increase distance and travel time,” Hamidi said. The average household in suburban communities across the nation spend about 35 percent of their income on transportation, she said.

Urban sprawl also segregates work communities from housing developments and rich neighborhoods from poor ones, she said.

Drennon agreed that urban sprawl creates segregated communities and keeps people separate because of the overdependence on cars. That also carries an economic effect, she said.

“It takes a lot of money to overcome distance,” Drennon said.


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Texas City ISD Industrial Trades Center unveils sponsorship plans

TEXAS CITY

A year after opening, the $8 million Texas City Independent School District Industrial Trades Center unveiled plans for a student sponsorship program.

The sponsorship program would give students more training after high school and give sponsors a way to support students through an interview process, officials said Thursday night. More details on the sponsorship program would be available in May.

With guests that included Mayor Bobby Hocking, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and Texas City Commissioner Phil Roberts, the open house also featured discussions on the trade center’s first year and its goals.

The 30,000-square-foot Industrial Trades Center, 1400 Ninth Ave. N., reached completion last spring and offers courses to high school students in construction, welding and pipe fitting, automotive technology, machinist training and instrumentation and electrical trades.

More than 300 students have been enrolled and with future incentives planned, the trade center will be able to reach more students, said Richard Chapa, director of Career Technology Education for the district.

“People need to realize what’s going on here and that we are building the future workforce,” he said. “We want to let people know how the community can still contribute to make our programs more successful.”

The education center’s success can be attributed to its engaging curriculum, Morath said.

“The need to create high school experiences for our students that are rigorous, that are challenging, but that are also relevant and connected to what they need to do to take care of themselves, is a compelling need for us all across the state of Texas,” he said.

Giving students school programs is an asset for Texas City’s future workforce, Roberts said.

“We are all about making sure our students get a good education, not just for college preparation, but also entering the workforce,” he said. “We are all working together to do what’s best for the students and their future. The future looks great.”

The trade center is off to a promising start and student opportunities will continue, Chapa said.

“It’s a big partnership with the community and we will let people know about other opportunities like internships,” he said.


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Coming Sunday

Coast Monthly tips its hat to cowboy and cowgirl culture as we prepare for the Galveston County Fair & Rodeo.


STUART VILLANUEVA/The Daily News 

Aspen Miller prepares to ride her horse, Scoot, on a sunny afternoon in Santa Fe.


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Judge dismisses lawsuit claiming racist bullying at Trinity

A district court judge Friday dismissed a lawsuit against Trinity Episcopal School that asserted its leaders had failed to stop a child from being bullied and subjected to racist insults, siding with the school’s argument that it is protected from legal claims as a religious institution.

“While the court certainly feels for C.R., as someone who herself was bullied in a private school, the law is clear here that the abstention doctrine applies,” Judge Michelle Slaughter, of the 405th District Court, said.

C.R. refers to the initials of the child who was allegedly bullied at school.

Attorneys for the Galveston private school in August 2017 had asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed, filing a plea to the jurisdiction and a motion to dismiss, arguing that the school is protected from legal claims under the First Amendment as a religious institution.

“When you see what happened in this case, and look at the circumstances to try to determine if they didn’t discipline or enforce their policy against racism and bullying, those details are all about the inner workings of the school, which is religious,” said Ronald Johnson, one of the attorneys representing the school.

The court has no jurisdiction in cases dealing with inner policy workings of religious institutions, Johnson said.

“And the plaintiff doesn’t dispute that this is a religious affiliation,” Johnson said.

Maureen Beans filed the lawsuit May 5, 2017, against the school, headmaster the Rev. David Dearman and the parents of three students. Neither the parents nor the accused children are identified by name in the petition.

The plaintiff’s son, who is African-American, attended Trinity Episcopal School from 2014 to 2016, when his mother withdrew him because of bullying and harassment, according to the lawsuit.

“I did what I felt was right as the mother of a child, and if I had to do it over again, I would do it again,” said Beans, who works at The Daily News.

Farbod Farnia, an attorney representing Beans, said Friday he needed to speak with her to determine whether they would take any more steps in the case.

After Friday’s ruling, the case is dismissed against Trinity Episcopal School and Dearman, but the three families that were defendants in the lawsuit were never served, said Robert Booth, an attorney representing the defendants.

Farnia objected to the defendants’ argument Friday, asserting that the court had standing in the case.

“The court’s job here is to figure out if this will require pulling back the veil, so to speak, and interpreting church dogma,” Farnia said. “In this case, no. It is not necessarily exclusive to church.”

The case should be treated similarly to a personal injury or a tort law case, Farnia said.

The original lawsuit asserted that three white students made and handed the boy “KKK origami” resembling the hoods worn by Ku Klux Klan members.

The three are accused of stating that their fathers were “dragon masters of the KKK” and generally bullying, harassing and racially discriminating against the boy to the point that he no longer felt safe and comfortable to attend Trinity, the lawsuit asserted.

Slaughter after both sides finished their statements, pressed Farnia.

“No one is accusing the school itself of engaging in racial discrimination?” Slaughter asked. “No one is alleging that the school adopted the attitude of the perpetrators? This is just that the school could have done more?”

The plaintiff is arguing not that the school could have done more, but that it should have done something, Farnia said.

Following several minutes to look over paperwork, Slaughter then ruled in favor of Trinity and its leaders, dismissing the lawsuit.