TULSA, Okla. (AP) - Nearly three months after alerting the public that patients of a Tulsa oral surgeon may have been exposed to hepatitis or the virus that causes AIDS, Oklahoma health officials concede it is unlikely that they'll reach everyone who might be at risk.
Some may have not heard the warning, some may consider the threat overblown and some may not want to know whether they're infected.
State and local officials shut down Dr. W. Scott Harrington's offices in March, saying they found unsafe practices, including dirty equipment. Investigators estimate their probe of clinics at Tulsa and Owasso would likely take several more months to complete — even though this coming Saturday is the last day patients can get free testing at public health clinics in Oklahoma.
"Our primary outreach now would be to those who were notified or heard about it and they procrastinated or were too afraid," state epidemiologist Dr. Kristy Bradley said. "There's that old anecdote that knowledge is power, and it's so very important to have that knowledge so they can get information on seeking treatment and care and making lifestyle changes."
Initially, officials worked off a CD containing more than 7,000 patient names dating back to 2007. But the electronic records were difficult to navigate and contained blank lines, redundant names and addresses and people who had died. After it was scrubbed, investigators pared it down to a master list of roughly 5,000.
More than 4,000 patients have been tested since late March at state health clinics, but there are patients who are getting tested by their own doctors or choosing not to get tested at all, so it would be an over-generalization to subtract those tested from the pared-down patient list, officials cautioned.
"I'm sure there is going to be a percentage out there who don't know about the testing or how to get tested," Oklahoma Board of Dentistry Executive Director Susan Rogers told The Associated Press. "I hope they do, because there a lot more treatments these days and the quicker you find out the better chances you have."
Health officials said they were certain that some patients who know about the health scare are afraid of getting tested because they don't want to know if they're positive for a disease. Others believe the scare is overblown and don't think it urgent to get tested, they said.
"It's hard to understand the psychology of people who just don't want to know," said dentist Dr. Matthew Messina, a consumer adviser for the American Dental Association who has a private practice in Cleveland. "All you can tell them is ignoring the facts doesn't make them go away. If you're infected, you're going to find out eventually, so isn't it better to know earlier?"
Thousands of Harrington's patients were urged in late March to get tested for hepatitis and the virus that causes AIDS after an investigation uncovered filthy conditions at his clinics — including varying cleaning procedures for equipment, needles re-inserted in drug vials after their initial use, drug vials used on multiple patients and no written infection-protection procedure, among others.
So far, 74 of Harrington's patients have tested positive for hepatitis C, according to latest figures from the Tulsa Health Department. Five patients have tested positive for hepatitis B and three for HIV.
Even with the positive results, there's no indication the diseases spread at his clinics and health experts have cautioned that the spread of disease in dental clinics is extremely rare.
Harrington's Tulsa attorney, James Secrest II issued a statement early in the health scare saying his client was cooperating fully with the probe and that Harrington's record with the state dentistry board was "impeccable." Secrest did not return a phone message seeking additional comment.
Harrington, who has been a dentist for 36 years, voluntarily surrendered his credentials on March 20. He faces an Aug. 16 license revocation hearing.
Previously, Rogers suggested that Harrington and his staff could face at least two felony charges, including practicing dentistry without a license and aiding or abetting another person who is violating the state's dental act.