NECN asks Vermont Tech to demonstrate proper sterilization steps

09 Dec 2016

A dental clinic in Morrisville, Vermont is notifying 61 patients that they may have been put at risk of disease.

[Watch the video on NECN.]

Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley told necn Thursday that people seen December 2 and December 5 may have been exposed to pathogens on improperly-cleaned dental equipment.

The revelation came to light December 6, when the center started notifying patients.“We’re sorry it happened,” said Kevin Kelley, the president and CEO of Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley. “We’re accepting full responsibility for it. I want to apologize to the patients.”

Kelley explained dental instruments first used on other patients went through only a rinsing process, but not the critical sterilization step, before they were re-used.

“It’s a human error,” Kelley noted.

The 61 patients the agency is notifying did not all have the tools used in their mouths, Kelley said.

Twenty of the appointments either did not require dental implements for their visits, or hygienists used equipment that had been properly sterilized, Kelley said. Still, all patients on the days in question are being notified, he said.

Potentially affected folks are urged to get tested for conditions like Hepatitis C, with Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley funding that lab work.

The clinic told necn it made a list of all the mouths the tools had been in before they were improperly sanitized. None of those so-called “source patients” had a history that showed HIV or Hepatitis B or C, Kelley said.

“We consider this very low-risk,” Kelley said, noting he still wants to be open and transparent about what happened.

“I would say it’s very rare,” Heather Blair, the president of the Vermont Dental Hygienists Association, said of improper implement sanitization.

Blair, who also teaches dental hygiene at Vermont Technical College’s Williston campus, had nothing to do with the Morrisville case.

Necn asked Blair to outline proper equipment handling.

Blair said before previously-used implements go into patients’ mouths, they are rinsed, placed into a bath, and agitated for several minutes in order to clear away gum tissue or other debris.

Then, as demonstrated by a VTC student, the tools are placed into a package and readied for a super-heating process.

Blair said at VTC, oral tools are heated to 260 degrees for a minimum of 16.5 minutes, but usually longer. That must be long enough to make a special strip placed in the package change color, confirming the sterilization is complete, Blair added.

The instructor noted the sterilization methods come from the Centers for Disease Control.

“We don’t want to be the cause of infection,” Blair said. “Especially the hygienists. Our whole job is prevention. And that prevention includes the sterilization of the equipment and tools that we use.”

Kelley said the community dental clinic in Morrisville has implemented new safeguards to make sure there’s not a repeat of this scare.

“What used to be double-checked is now triple- or quadruple-checked,” Kelley told necn.

Kelley said Community Health Services of Lamoille Valley has been in communication with the CDC and the Vermont Department of Health about the sterilization problem.

The administrator said he receives dental care himself from the clinic, and will continue to do so after this revelation.

“I have confidence in our facility,” Kelley said.

Patients with questions or concerns about the risk for disease exposure may contact the Vermont Department of Health at 1-800-640-4374.