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.