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Investigation Finds 5 Hepatitis Cases Tied to Santa Barbara Doctor’s Office

A Santa Barbara County Public Health investigation has determined that a Santa Barbara medical office's unsafe injection procedures were responsible for the transmission of Hepatitis C.

That conclusion was reached after genetic testing found that five patients who visited the office on the same day contracted new cases of the Hepatitis C virus that are significantly genetically related. 

The county shut down the office of Dr. Allen Thomashefsky on March 19, an unprecedented move prompted by the discovery that a former patient may have acquired Hepatitis C from an injection at the local medical practice.

An investigation was started to determine if any patients acquired a blood-borne virus due to “unsafe injection control practices” at that office, according to the county.

Public Health has notified patients and former patients and conducted blood tests for 291 people, and seven have been identified as having a new diagnosis of Hepatitis C.

Five of those people had injection procedures at Thomashefsky’s office on the same day, with no other common elements between them, according to the county.

Genetic testing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the virus from these five patients “had a significant degree of relatedness,” Public Health deputy director Susan Klein-Rothschild said Friday.

“This information, combined with the improper infection-control practices identified at Dr. Thomashefsky’s clinic, support the conclusion by Public Health that Hepatitis C virus transmission did occur at this medical practice.”

A number of infection-control procedures were breached, and the investigation hasn't yet discovered the exact source of the spread, Klein-Rothschild said. 

Other cases are being investigated, and Public Health still encourages any patient or former patient of the Santa Barbara medical office to get a blood test for HIV, Hepatitis B and Hepatitis C.

“It’s a significant diagnosis,” said Dr. Charity Dean, Santa Barbara County’s health officer. She urges all patients who have been newly diagnosed with Hepatitis C to immediately see a doctor who specializes in the virus.

“If you don’t get treatment for Hepatitis C it can absolutely be fatal.”

There are new treatments available that are expensive, but covered by insurance, she said. However, not everyone is eligible for the treatment, she added.

Dean made two inspections at the Santa Barbara office at 2320 Bath St., #301 and saw numerous breaches.

“After the second inspection I knew I had to take immediate action so I actually closed his facility that day under my authority as health officer,” she said.

“Really what it comes down to is, basic infection control practices are basic, and in this situation those basic infection control practices were not being followed,” Dean said.

The CDC has a campaign promoting the practice of “One Needle, One Syringe, Only One Time” for safe injections and if any of those things are violated, there is an opportunity to spread a blood-borne virus, Dean said.

“Doctors should wear gloves, they should wash their hands between patients and have a designated clean and dirty area on a counter where they are preparing solutions to inject. Any one of those breaches could be how the virus was spread,” she said.

She can say “with 100 percent certainty” that Hepatitis C was spread by that medical practice that day, between the breaches in injection protocol observed there and the significant genetic relatedness of the virus among the five patients, she said.

The Medical Board of California is also investigating this case and may take action, but to this point hasn’t taken any action against Thomashefsky’s license.

Dean urges anyone who has visited that office to get a blood test immediately, for Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B and HIV. No Hepatitis B or HIV cases have been found related to this investigation, she noted.

“This cluster of five, this is probably not the only cluster,” Dean said.

“If another patient tests positive, it could be the tip of the iceberg for another cluster we haven’t found yet.”

Thomashefsky’s office in Santa Barbara is one of two locations, and he has been ordered not to administer injections at the Ashland, Oregon, office where he was working after the Santa Barbara closure.

In Oregon, Thomashefsky’s practice is prohibited from ordering or administering any injections that aren’t immunizations recommended by the CDC and cannot retrieve or process any blood or tissue samples unless it is sent to a certified laboratory, according to an order from the Oregon Medical Board issued April 14.

The order is in place until the board finishes its investigation “into his ability to safely and competently practice medicine.”

The Oregon Health Authority is still investigating and is reaching out to patients to let them know their potential risk, spokesman Jonathan Modie said. Oregon officials are also advising former and current patients of Thomashefsky to get a blood test for Hepatitis C, Hepatitis B and HIV.

Santa Barbara County Public Health Public Health is still conducting the investigation and testing additional patients, but is in touch with the Medical Board of California and other organizations who will help make decisions about how to proceed with the case, Klein-Rothschild said. 

“Our first priority is really the health and safety of our patients and the people who don't even know they need care,” she said. 

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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