Thousands of people got a particularly crummy gift this Christmas: A warning that they could have been exposed to dangerous bloodborne diseases like HIV and viral hepatitis while receiving care at the hospital.
On Tuesday, NBC News reported that the HealthPlus Surgery Center in Saddle Brook, New Jersey sent letters to more than 3,700 patients who had visited it between January 1st to September 7th. According to the letter, obtained by NBC News, an investigation by the New Jersey Department of Health found that HealthPlus staff often failed to properly sterilize surgical tools between uses or otherwise neglected infection control procedures, raising the risk that patients could have gotten bloodborne infections.
“To date, there have not been reports of any infections or illness related to the investigation,” the letter says. “However, HealthPlus and the New Jersey Department of Health recommend that you get blood tests for hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV.”
The need for a test is especially important because all three diseases often cause no symptoms at first, and acute symptoms can resemble a flu or cold if they appear. But both hepatitis B and C can become chronic silent infections, while HIV infection is currently incurable and only manageable with lifelong antiviral therapy. Untreated chronic hepatitis B and C infection can lead to permanent liver damage, liver failure, and cancer.
It’s unclear what prompted the initial investigation by the New Jersey Department of Health. But on September 7th, the agency ordered the facility to shut down. The center was allowed to reopen later that month after it said it had hired and trained new staff, fixed medical equipment, and improved its infection control procedures.
All of the blood tests will be covered free of charge by the center. Patients can visit specific locations in New York and New Jersey to obtain a test provided by the center, but patients who visit their doctor for the test may have to pay a copay or deductible that will be reimbursed by the center.