EXCLUSIVE: School official says DHEC kept him in dark about TB threat

sfretwell@thestate.comJune 6, 2013 

Two Greenwood County school employees have tested positive for tuberculosis, a highly contagious respiratory disease. One is in involuntary detention ordered by state health officials.

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A Greenwood County school superintendent said he wanted to inform the public about a contagious disease investigation in a Ninety Six primary school this spring, but the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control thwarted those efforts for nearly two months.

Mark Petersen, superintendent of Greenwood District 52, said Thursday he made at least 13 phone calls to DHEC, beginning April 8, “begging” for information about the agency’s probe. But Petersen said he was repeatedly put off by agency staff members and kept in the dark.

DHEC did not tell him that a person who worked at Ninety Six Primary School had tuberculosis until May 27, Petersen told The State newspaper. The next day, notes were sent home to parents.

“I’ve been kind of held in the dark and my hands have been tied with DHEC, trying to get information” so he could relay it to parents, Petersen told the newspaper. “The bottom line is we certainly would have acted.”

All told, at least 53 children and 10 staff members have tested positive for tuberculosis. Of those, 10 children have the disease. The source of the tuberculosis exposure is believed to be a school janitor.

DHEC said that person has been so uncooperative in its investigation that the agency on Thursday confined him so that he will not expose more people. It is unclear when DHEC first knew the person had tested positive for contagious tuberculosis, but Petersen said the employee stopped working at the school early in March.

A second person who worked at the school also was identified as contagious this week, DHEC officials said on Wednesday.

Tuberculosis is usually spread through the air by coughing or sneezing. People who breathe in germs can become infected. The disease primarily affects people’s lungs, causing those infected to cough up blood and experience chest pain while breathing. They also can sweat excessively at night. Tuberculosis can be fatal if not treated.

Parents throughout this small, historic town are upset that they heard nothing official about the tuberculosis concern until May 28, when the notes came home with schoolchildren. Some blame the school district. Others are mad at DHEC.

Petersen, who has been superintendent for four years, said he did everything he could to get the word out. He accompanied DHEC staff on a walk-through at Ninety Six Primary School on March 28, the day after they told him of a possible infectious-disease concern. That was two months before they told him that it was tuberculosis and that children needed to be tested, he said.

When the building tour was completed, Petersen said he asked agency staffers how long it would be before they would provide information to share with parents. But DHEC staffers only said they would provide information as soon as possible, Petersen said.

The school was on spring break the following week. When he returned April 8, Petersen said, he began making phone calls to DHEC.

“This is a government agency you’re supposed to be able to rely on,” Petersen said before a school board meeting Thursday in Ninety Six, a community of 2,000 people some 75 miles northwest of Columbia. “I’m a schoolteacher. If there are things they’ve got to do because of public health, they need to get them done.”

DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden did not return phone calls Thursday. Agency director Catherine Templeton said earlier this week that the tuberculosis posed no imminent health threat but that the school district was free to inform parents. Petersen said he didn’t have any information from DHEC to relay.

Templeton conceded the agency could have handled matters better. Last week, she fired two DHEC employees and left open the possibility of more disciplinary action. Either way, she said, the exposures to children by a school worker likely occurred last winter – before DHEC learned of the TB threat March 8, she said.

Petersen said Templeton has been cooperative since becoming personally involved in the issue, but he expressed continuing frustration with the agency.

DHEC said Wednesday that a second adult from the school considered contagious was being quarantined at home. Petersen said the agency hasn’t told him the person’s identity. He also found out about the second positive through a media report, he said.

“As the employer, you would think” DHEC would tell him directly, Petersen said.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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