The Washington State Department of Health’s dental commission is investigating Neighborcare Health, a company that provides medical and dental services to about half of the school-based clinics in Seattle due to concerns about contaminated equipment.

Employees at 12 school clinics in Seattle and Vashon Island skipped a step when sterilizing hand pieces, an instrument used for tooth polishing and removing decay. Neighborcare sent a letter to the families of more than 1,200 students late last month recommending a test for HIV and Hepatitis B and C, local news outlets reported.

The risk of infection is low, the company found. King County health department officials, who asked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s input, agreed.

Though all the hand pieces were soaked in a solution that is supposed to kill any bloodborne pathogens, staffers didn’t expose them to the heat needed for full sterilization, according to a statement from Neighborcare’s CEO, Michael Erikson.

Instead of applying the heat between patients, staffers only did so at the end of the day, said Meagan Kay, a medical epidemiologist for King County’s public health department.

Heating is important, Kay said, because depending on how well the instruments are scrubbed, “theoretically, there could still be some residue.” The risk is low, she said, because hand pieces aren’t intended for breaking skin or surgery.


Even so, state health officials decided that the incident was serious enough to warrant further questioning.

After Neighborcare filed a complaint against themselves to alert state officials, the company sent the letter to families saying they could bring their kids in to Immediate Clinic, a Seattle-based urgent care provider, for free testing.

“While we are deeply concerned, we appreciate that Neighborcare Health has been proactive in informing families and schools about the protocol deficiencies identified in its school-based dental programs,” a Seattle Public Schools spokesman said in a statement.