Oklahoma Dentist Could Face Criminal Charges

ABC/KOCO,Oklahoma Board of Dentistry(NEW YORK) -- An Oklahoma dentist accused of exposing thousands of patients to HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C may face criminal charges for his actions, Susan Rogers, president of Oklahoma Board of Dentistry, told ABC News.

"The basic things that everyone knows -- follow CDC guidelines, use clean syringes, don't reuse multi-dose vials in multiple patients, don't use rusted equipment -- those are things even non-physicians know," Rogers said. "Those are basic things. That part makes it egregious."

On Friday the Tulsa Health Department sent 7,000 warning letters to the patients of Dr. Wayne Scott Harrington, an oral surgeon with practices in Tulsa and Owasso, informing them of an investigation into Harrington's practice and advising them to get tested for HIV, hepatitis B or hepatitis C.

Rogers said investigations by the state dental board, the state health department, the state bureau of narcotics and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency are just getting underway. Although she has not yet submitted documents to the Tulsa District Attorney, she has alerted him about the situation.

The dentist's alleged practices came to light after a patient tested positive for HIV and hepatitis C, and had no known risk factors. State health officials traced the infections to the dentist.

Upon hearing of the infected patient on March 15, the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry conducted a surprise inspection of Harrington's practice on March 18, allegedly finding numerous problems, including regular use of a rusty set of instruments on patients with known infections, and the practice of pouring bleach on wounds until they "turned white." They also discovered that Harrington employed dental assistants who weren't licensed.

"Practicing dentistry without a license is a felony," she said. "When we found out the things that they said, the fact that the assistants were giving IV anesthesia, that part is absolutely unacceptable and illegal, and my board frowns on that."

Since news of the investigation broke Thursday, Rogers said she has received several other calls from former patients alleging that the dental assistants performed other dental procedures, as well.

Calls Thursday night to Harrington's office were directed to an operator, who told ABC News the clinic no longer took voicemails. The operator said patients were being referred to another clinic, but did not disclose the clinic's name.

Harrington voluntarily surrendered his state dental license and other permits, and a formal hearing before the dentistry board is scheduled for April 19.

Rogers called the incident a "perfect storm." On top of his many violations in sanitary practice, the dentist was a Medicaid provider, which means he had a high proportion of patients with HIV or hepatitis, she said.

Harrington and his staff told investigators that he treated a "high population of known infectious disease carrier patients," according to a 17-count complaint filed by the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry. Drug cabinets were unlocked and unsupervised during the day, and Harrington did not keep an inventory log of drugs, some of which were controlled substances, according to the complaint. One drug vial expired in 1993.

"During the inspections, Dr. Harrington referred to his staff regarding all sterilization and drug procedures in his office," the complaint read. "He advised, 'They take care of that. I don't.'"

Harrington allegedly re-used needles, contaminating drugs with potentially harmful bacteria and trace amounts of other drugs, according to the complaint. Although patient-specific drug records indicated that they were using morphine in 2012, no morphine had been ordered since 2009.

The instruments for infected patients was given an extra dip in bleach in addition to normal cleaning methods, but they had red-brown rust spots, indicating that they were "porous and cannot be properly sterilized," according to the complaint.

While 7,000 patients may have been exposed, Joseph Perz, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said it's "extremely rare" to see dental transmission of HIV and hepatitis B or C. In July 2012, 8,000 Coloradans were notified that their dentist had reused needles, potentially exposing them to the blood-borne viruses. But not a single case was identified, according to the CDC.

Dental transmission is not impossible, however. Perz cited a dental fair three years ago in which hepatitis B was transmitted between patients.

In July 2012, more than 1,800 veterans who received dental care at a St. Louis VA Medical Center were warned that improper cleaning of dental tools may have exposed them to HIV and hepatitis.

The Tulsa Health Department has set up a hotline at (918) 595-4500 for people with questions. The department will set up a free clinic to test patients on April 1.

Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio

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