FT. LEE, N.J. -- A serious health emergency that's made headlines since just before Christmas has gotten worse, according to some former patients of a surgery center that admits that it put them at risk for contracting HIV and hepatitis.
The change that's apparently worsened the situation was announced Thursday by an attorney representing hundreds of the former patients.
"Two of my clients have proved positive," said Michael Maggiano, who represents more than 200 former patients. "One for hepatitis B, and one for hepatitis A."
He said that his clients did not want their identities known, but they are among the nearly 3,800 former patients at the HealthPlus Surgery Center of Saddle Brook, New Jersey.
Last fall, the state's department of health temporarily shut down the facility, after it found severe sanitation violations. Its inspectors also discovered that the lack of sanitation put patients who'd been treated at the HealthPlus location during 2018 at risk for contracting HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C. The state did not specifically state that patients could contract hepatitis A.
The fact that at least one former patient has contracted hepatitis B has left other former patients concerned, to say the least.
"I'm terrified," said Kristin Debenedictis, who'd gone to HealthPlus last year for minor surgery for a spinal condition. "I find that to be really, really scary news. That's awful, and I'm absolutely disgusted."
Debenedictis is part of a lawsuit against HealthPlus, but her legal action, spearheaded by New York personal injury attorney Sanford Rubenstein, is separate from the class action that New Jersey lawyer Michael Maggiano is leading.
Still, Debenedictis said, there's one other thing that was brought up in Maggiano's news conference on Thursday that she found very disturbing.
"The incubation could be a year, it could be more," Maggiano said about the presence of HIV or hepatitis in the bloodstream. "HIV may not show up for a decade," the attorney said. "Hepatitis B may not show up for a decade."
After the state health department took action against HealthPlus, it was not only required to warn its patients that they'd been susceptible to blood-borne illnesses, it was also required to pay for blood tests for its patients, at facilities that HealthPlus had selected.
"[I have] absolutely no trust in HealthPlus," Debenedictis said. "I've lost any trust I've had."
She has ended up following the same course of action that a doctor who was invited to speak at Maggiano's news conference recommended for former HealthPlus patients.
"Their individual physician that knows them best, knows their ailments, knows their medicines, really needs to address these problems," Dr. Thomas Ragukonis said.
HealthPlus opened up their Saddle River facility to a media tour earlier this month to show that it is fully compliant with state sanitary standards. It also pointed out that some members of its staff who'd been responsible for sanitary conditions at the facility are now gone. The facility has reopened.
HealthPlus also, in response to a request for comment from PIX11 News on Thursday, referred to a statement from the New Jersey Department of Health regarding former patients contracting diseases:
"When the NJ Department of Health receives positive lab results, the NJ Department of Health cannot tell whether they represent infection related to the procedures performed at HealthPlus or were acquired in some other manner. As a result, the NJ Department of Health will not release (or confirm) information related to patient results. When the outbreak investigation is complete, which takes weeks to months, if patient confidentiality can be maintained, the NJ Department of Health may release an overall summary related to the total number of positive results identified from the testing event. This summary would contain information as to whether our investigation determined positive results were related to the infection control breach, unrelated to the infection control breaches, or impossible to determine."