Six West Seattle schools involved in Neighborcare Health alert about dental-care sterilization concern

A letter has been sent to families of more than 1,200 students who received dental services from Neighborcare Health at 12 Seattle and Vashon schools, including six in West Seattle. They are recommended for hepatitis B and C and HIV testing because items used in dental procedures “might not have completed the final step in the sterilization process.” Here’s the letter sent to potentially affected students’ families, forwarded to us anonymously.

Neighborcare Health says the potentially affected schools where it provided school-based dental services include Chief Sealth International High School, Denny International Middle School, Highland Park Elementary, Madison Middle School, Roxhill Elementary, and West Seattle Elementary, as well as Chautauqua Elementary and McMurray Middle School on Vashon Island. That’s according to the statement we received when we followed up with Neighborcare. Here’s the rest of it:

Recently, Neighborcare Health discovered a deficiency in our dental sterilization procedures involving some of the dental handpieces used at our Seattle and Vashon school-based health clinics.

We want to first clearly express how sorry we are for this incident and any concern that it causes our patients and their families. We want to explain what happened, the possible risks, and what we are doing to ensure it cannot happen again.

We take very seriously our responsibility to provide our patients and communities with quality, accessible care. We are committed to keeping our patients informed about their health care and following up with them as needed.

What happened?

Our staff learned, and reported to leadership, that some dental handpieces in our portable school-based dental program were disinfected but not fully heat sterilized as required by Neighborcare Health’s policy. A handpiece is a tool that holds dental instruments, such as a bur or a polishing cup, and is used during cleaning and filling procedures. This handpiece sterilization issue only occurred at Neighborcare Health’s school-based dental clinics. The incident did not impact patients seen in Neighborcare Health’s other dental clinics, or patients seen for medical-only care in the school-based clinics.

We are unable to determine specific dates or appointments that may be impacted by this incident. Therefore, we provided notification letters to patients covering a broad date range to help assure we are capturing anyone potentially impacted. As a result, approximately 1,250 dental patients seen at our school-based clinics prior to March 4, 2019, were notified of the incident.

The timeframe for when Vashon Island school-based dental patients were potentially impacted was between September 2017 and March 2018.

What is the risk?

During the above timeframe, the handpieces were cleaned with the germicidal disinfectant, CaviCide, which kills pathogens associated with hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV, but some handpieces did not undergo required autoclave/heat sterilization. All other instruments used during dental procedures were properly sterilized.

In consulting with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), we understand that no literature has ever demonstrated that infectious disease transmission has ever occurred from a dental handpiece.

Based on all of these factors and how handpieces are used, we believe the risk for infection is very low.

How is Neighborcare Health responding?

Despite a likely low-risk for transmission, we sent notification letters to patients who may have been affected by this incident to notify them of possible exposure, and to provide details on how they can get testing for hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV. This screening is provided at no cost to patients at the Immediate Clinic urgent care centers, which is a third party that Neighborcare Health has contracted with to provide the testing. We are also prepared to assist with any follow-up care for patients as needed.

We are working closely with Public Health—Seattle & King County Infectious Disease Department. We have also connected with our school-based program partners, including school principals and our school-based program managers from Public Health.

Along with notifying patients who may have been exposed, our other priority has been to ensure that our staff fully understands and follows our policies and procedures for infection prevention. We immediately re-trained all school-based dental staff in sterilization processes and policies. We will also reassure that all new and current dental assistants across the Neighborcare Health organization are following sterilization procedures. We continue to review our processes and policies and refine our standards as necessary to ensure that we operate in a manner consistent with our nonprofit mission to provide safe and high-quality care to our patients.

We are sincerely sorry for any distress this incident may have caused our patients, their families, and our partners. As a community health center deeply committed to the health of our patients and the communities we have served for over 50 years, we are working to be transparent in our understanding of what happened, the actual risk to potentially affected patients, and how we can ensure that this incident will not happen again.

Along with the West Seattle and Vashon schools mentioned, Neighborcare says patients were potentially affected at four other Seattle schools where it provides school-based dental services: Bailey Gatzert Elementary, Beacon Hill Elementary, Mercer Middle School, and Van Asselt Elementary.

8 Replies to "Six West Seattle schools involved in Neighborcare Health alert about dental-care sterilization concern"

  • TheNation April 2, 2019 (8:22 pm)

    Call 206-548-3061 and they will see if your child is on the list of needing to be tested.

  • Lesley April 2, 2019 (9:27 pm)

    It’s infuriating. Putting already vulnerable people in danger while purporting to do the healthy thing. And really,  in this day and age, do we need to still discuss proper sanitation techniques?? An outrage.

  • Reality April 3, 2019 (9:35 am)


  • concerned parent April 3, 2019 (10:43 am)

    beyond unacceptable.  completely infuriating.   stop the contract with that organization and find another provider who understands the basics of safety and helping little kids and youth.  unbelievable.  whoever oversaw their ‘sanitation’ process should be fired.

  • Nothingshocks April 3, 2019 (12:16 pm)

    How terrifying. We absorb the costs one way or another, it seems. Standards dropped to keep up with the demand. Unacceptable, but the more we demand mass ‘production’, the more we have to get used to it.  If I’m making Kool-Aid for 25 people instead of 10, it’s going to be watered down. 

  • TBW April 3, 2019 (1:26 pm)

    The instrument they are talking about is the hand held motor part of the dental equipment. It is not even put in the patient’s mouth. There has never been a situation where this has caused any type of infection. The equipment was sterilized just not put through a final stage which up to a year or so ago was not even a requirement for sterilization in the state of Washington. 

  • West Seattle Hipster April 3, 2019 (5:08 pm)

    Hopefully some people will lose their careers over this and no kids are adversely affected.

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