NewsChannel 5 photojournalist Dan Eyrich suited up so he can shoot inside VA's sterile area.
By: Mike Owens
St. Louis -- A failure in cleaning dental instruments properly at the John Cochran Veterans Administration Hospital on Grand may have but 1,812 dental clinic patients at risk.
The patients started getting certified letters Tuesday, advising them they may have been exposed to viruses: hepatitis and HIV.
Dr. Gina Michael is the association chief of staff at the hospital, and says the failure happened because some dental technicians thought they were doing the right thing by washing the dental tools themselves.
Dr. Michael says the techs were using a sink and strong soap to clean the tools, when they should have sent them to the hospital sanitizing and sterilizing department.
The techs, says Dr. Michael, were trying to protect the delicate instruments by doing the cleaning by hand, but instead, they were breaking protocol.
The hand cleaning started in February 2009 and continued until March 2010, when it was discovered by an inspection team from headquarters. The inspection was routine, but the discovery of the hand washing was not.
Dr. Michael says the hospital has gone to great lengths to set up a special clinic for the dental patients who may be at risk. An education center at the hospital has been turned into the clinic. There, callers to a hotline about the problem are answered, and upon visiting, the patients get orientation about the problem, blood tests if they want, and even counseling. Dr. Michael is urging all of those patients to get the blood tests.
Even though the dental instruments were washed by hand, they were still sterilized by machine. The hospital uses high heat and pressure to sterilize instruments, which kills most germs. However, some viruses can withstand the heat, that's why they are washed in special machines.
NewsChannel Five Mike Owens reporter talked to one man in the clinic. He says he felt like he was being treated appropriately by the V-A, and wasn't worried.
Congressman Russ Carnahan is concerned. He has called for a full investigation by the House veterans affairs subcommittee, to find out what went wrong at Cochran and why. You can read his letter to the subcommittee below.
Dr. Michael would not say if any employees were punished for the hand washing.
Russ Carnahan's letter:
The Honorable Eric K. Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20420
Dear Secretary Shinseki:
I am writing to call for a formal investigation into reports that thousands of veterans in several states including Missouri could have been exposed to blood borne pathogens such as Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV while receiving dental care at John Cochran VA Medical Center. I understand that this exposure was caused by neglecting to follow manufacturer's directives in properly sanitizing dental equipment.
A grievance of this magnitude is absolutely unacceptable. No veteran who has served and risked their life for this great Nation should have to worry about their personal safety when receiving much needed healthcare services from a Veterans Administration hospital. The men and women who have served this nation deserve the very best health care available - anything less is intolerable.
I insist that you open a formal investigation into this matter. The VA must determine what caused this indefensible breach of standard operating procedures and report what the Department of Veterans Affairs plans to do to address and remedy this unfortunate issue, so that it never occurs again.
Thank you for your immediate and full attention to this matter.
Member of Congress