Six people who received dental treatment at the Texas City Coastal Health & Wellness Clinic in the past three years were diagnosed with hepatitis C after visiting the clinic, county health officials confirmed Monday.
Two of the people did not contract the disease at the clinic, which suspended dental appointments in February after an accreditation review identified multiple problems with the way the clinic sanitized instruments used in invasive procedures.
The county health district is still investigating how the other four people were infected, said Dr. Phllip Keiser, the Galveston County health authority.
It’s possible the people contracted the disease before, during or after visiting the dental clinic, Keiser said.
Uncertainty about how the people were infected and the proximity in time of the diagnoses and clinic visits were critical factors in the health district’s Friday announcement that as many as 9,500 people were potentially exposed to hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV at the dental clinic.
The district urged people who had dental procedures at the clinic between March 1, 2015, and Feb. 13 to be tested for infections.
The health district set up a hotline Monday to answer questions about the possible exposure and to help set up free screening tests.
The district had already tested about 200 people by Monday afternoon, Keiser said.
The free screening tests will be available through April 13, he said.
No one from Coastal Health & Wellness attended a news conference or responded to questions about the clinic’s practices Friday when the health district announced its concerns.
Mary McClure, the clinic’s executive director, and Milton Howard, chairman of the Coastal Health & Wellness Board of Governors, held a news conference Monday to announce the organization was fully cooperating with the health district’s investigation.
Howard, a dentist, said none of the hepatitis C cases identified so far had been connected with the clinic’s sanitation practices.
“We see patients with hep C, hep B and HIV and we take the proper precautions when we see each and every patient,” he said. “Seeing them or any patient, we take the same precautions.”
McClure, who was named executive director of Coastal Health & Wellness in November 2017 after serving 11 months as its interim director, said there had been a delay between closing the clinic on Feb. 12 and notifying the public so officials could make initial findings and consult with state and local authorities.
Appointments at the dental clinic had been canceled during that 38-day delay and patients had not been told why, McClure said.
“We told them that when we were canceling their appointments that we were doing some redesign internally,” McClure said.
The dental clinic is not yet reopened.
‘THE GOOD NEWS’
Hepatitis C is a liver infection carried through the blood. It can cause fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite and the yellowing of skin and eyes. It can lie dormant for long periods of time, but it can also cause organ damage and death.
Hepatitis C can be cured through medication, Keiser said.
“The good news about this is that we have no evidence of hepatitis B or HIV infections,” Keiser said. Those viruses have no cure.
Galveston County Health District officials did not disclose that dental clinic patients had been diagnosed with hepatitis C when initially announcing their concerns last week. Keiser said the health district was trying to walk a “fine line” between informing the public and sparking a public health panic.
So far, no illnesses have been connected directly to work done at the clinic, Keiser said.
McClure at the news conference Monday would not confirm whether anyone had been fired since the sterilization issue was first raised. She cited the ongoing investigation.
In the past month, the clinic had hired a consultant to bring the clinic up to standard, and instituted an infection control policy, she said.
The clinic’s staff had been trained about sterilizing equipment, and the clinic can now document that the staff members have been trained, she said.
In an interview after Monday’s commissioners court meeting, Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said he had been informed about the situation about two weeks ago and was told about the positive diagnoses Thursday.
Henry said that he did not know what, if any, role the county would have in holding the clinic and the health district responsible for the sanitation lapses.
“We don’t know what the fallout is yet,” Henry said. “The short answer is, we don’t know, and I’m not sure what we can and cannot do.”