Dental Patients Tested for HIV/Hepatitis In Health Scare

SPOKANE, Wash. - Almost 40 patients were called back to a local dental clinic for HIV and Hepatitis testing this week after they were possibly exposed to instruments which employees believe may not have been properly sterilized.

The health scare took place at the Community Health Association of Spokane, better known as CHAS, in their Denny Murphy Dental location at 1001 W. 2nd Ave. in downtown Spokane. It's a clinic that's best known for treating thousands of the region's uninsured and low-income adults.

CHAS Executive Director Peg Hopkins told KHQ that there was a possible exposure to 39 patients last Friday because there was a "failure in the sterilization process," but they're now investigating exactly where the failure occurred.

Thirty-eight of those patients who received treatment last Friday have been contacted to come in for free testing this week. Employees are in the process of contacting the 39th.

"We take our responsibility so seriously to our patients and the community," Hopkins said. "We place that at the top of the list and we know how much our patients trust us. We want them to trust us - they should - and to feel that we have ever made this kind of an error that put patients at risk was devastating."

Hopkins explained that the dental sterilization process has multiple steps, which they're now analyzing to narrow down where the process failed.

The sterilization process starts with washing the instruments, then they're placed in a disinfecting solution, then put into a sealed bag, and finally the instruments are put into an autoclave. An autoclave is a machine which sterilizes the tools. When the instruments come out of the autoclave, the employees can tell they've been properly sterilized based on a colored strip. That strip changes color if properly sterilized.

There are multiple dental assistants who handle the tools during the sterilization process, Hopkins said, but it was just one person who discovered a possible problem.

"Late in the afternoon, one of the dental assistants opened a drawer and found a package that the color strip had not changed," Hopkins explained. "That indicates to us that they weren't autoclaved appropriately. We, at this point, don't know whether the autoclave failed or whether we didn't read that test strip correctly and we're still trying to figure that piece out. But as soon as you see something like that, then you have to go into action."

Employees then went through all the drawers and found 13 other packages that may not have been sterilized.

"We had to take the ultimate precautions in this case and assume that it was possible that any or all of the patients we saw that day, in that clinic, had been exposed to this risk," she said.

CHAS employees began calling patients back to come in for HIV testing as well as preventative treatment for Hepatitis C. Not only that, but the clinic's offering testing in the next six weeks, 12 weeks, and 24 weeks. Depending on the infection source, some infections can't be detected until at least six weeks after exposure.  For some infections, it can take as long as 6 months, according to officials at the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD).

According to Hopkins, the risk of infection is extremely low, including a less than one-percent chance to contract HIV, at .03 percent, and a less than two-percent chance of contracting Hepatitis C, at 1.8% percent. Hopkins added that it's possible none of patients were exposed, but at this point, the clinic has to take every precaution to ensure their patients' health and safety.

According to Kim Papich, Spokesperson for the SRHD, "In a standard response to a possible exposure to a blood borne pathogen, a provider would likely bring those potentially exposed back in to test them for already-existing infections to establish a baseline, not necessarily test them for possible infection as a result of an exposure."

From here on out, employees are going to re-double their efforts on all of the dental clinic's protocols as well as increase training.

As for the dental assistant who found the mis-colored strips on the tools, Hopkins said, that person is on leave pending the completion of the investigation. Hopkins would not say if that person was on paid leave.

According to their website, CHAS currently serves more than 46,000 patients each year in the Spokane area and the Lewis-Clark Valley. By 2015, we expect to double in size, bring in new jobs to our economy, while providing a healthcare home to more people in the Inland Northwest. Last year alone, they served 5,600 people.

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