Justin Juozapavicius and Tim Talley
OKLAHOMA CITY —
Members of the Oklahoma Board of Health met in secret Tuesday to discuss an oral surgeon whose dirty clinics caused a health scare but took no action against his license and said there was no sense of panic among those examining his offices at Tulsa and Owasso.
“We believe that the investigation is going smoothly,” said Dr. Terry Cline, the state’s commissioner of health. He said the effort to reach 7,000 patients treated by Dr. W. Scott Harrington over the past six years is “phasing down” despite there being no contact with nearly half of those potentially exposed to hepatitis or the virus that causes AIDS.
“We’ve been very aggressive in trying to locate those individuals,” Cline said.
The head of the state’s Dentistry Board, who did not attend the meeting, said the remaining concern is that any of Harrington’s patients could unwittingly pass along a disease.
“We’re missing about 3,000, minimum,” said Susan Rogers, whose agency is responsible for different aspects of the investigation. “These patients can unknowingly spread disease that has a possibility of hurting others.
“I think a lot of people, they’re just scared,” she said.
Health Department officials said a number of patients had changed addresses multiple times since seeing Harrington for oral surgery, making them difficult to locate.
State and Tulsa health inspectors shuttered Harrington’s clinics in March, saying they found myriad unsanitary conditions — inconsistent cleaning procedures for equipment, needles re-inserted into drug vials after their initial use, drug vials used on multiple patients and no written infection-protection procedure. Unlicensed dental assistants were also allegedly performing IV sedation.
Board members met privately for about 45 minutes to discuss Harrington’s case and an unrelated personnel matter.
Toni Frioux, a deputy commissioner of health for prevention and preparedness services whose department is involved in the investigation of Harrington, was with the board during part of its private meeting. Neither Harrington nor his Tulsa-based attorney, Jim Secrest, attended. Secrest did not return a message seeking comment Tuesday but has said his client is cooperating with the investigation.
The Health Department reported last week that 3,796 people have visited county health departments throughout the state to have their blood drawn for testing in connection with the public health investigation. Others have sought testing through their private health care providers.
The agency said 70 people had tested positive for hepatitis C and four had tested positive for hepatitis B. Three positive HIV infections have also been identified, according to the Health Department.
But it remains unclear whether the patients were infected at the clinic. Officials have said members of Harrington’s staff reported they knew several already-infected patients who came to the clinic.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the spread of hepatitis or HIV infections at a dental clinic is extremely rare, with only three cases on record.
Tulsa County District Attorney Tim Harris said last week it was too soon to say whether his office would bring criminal charges against Harrington.
Harrington, who has been a dentist for 36 years, voluntarily surrendered his credentials on March 20 and agreed not to practice medicine until an Aug. 16 hearing where his medical license could be revoked.