COLUMBIA, SC — A Greenwood County school employee suspected of infecting dozens of children with the tuberculosis germ has been detained and sent to a secure facility in Columbia to protect the public from further exposure to the contagious disease.
In what state health officials say is an unprecedented action, they issued an emergency public health order Thursday to confine the man because “you failed to obtain permission before leaving home.”
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control would not name the person but said the infected individual has pulmonary tuberculosis, “a life threatening” disease spread through the air. The order did not say what places the infected person visited outside of his home.
DHEC said the man was uncooperative with an infectious disease probe at Ninety Six Primary School, where the individual has worked. He is said to be a janitor at the school, where more than 50 children have been infected with the tuberculosis germ – including 10 who have contracted the disease.
The agency’s emergency public health order, obtained Thursday by The State, says DHEC is trying to determine who the man came in contact with from July 2012 to June 2013. That’s the first indication the man could have been infectious before December.
DHEC director Catherine Templeton said earlier this week her agency did not learn about the infection until March 8, but suspects the man was contagious in December, January and February.
Greenwood County Sheriff Tony Davis said several of his officers transported the man to a Columbia facility early Thursday afternoon. Davis, who said he has never encountered a similar situation, said he asked for volunteers because the man is contagious with tuberculosis.
“I had quite a bit of concern about it – the protection of the officers,” Davis said. “I had a couple of officers volunteer. I got with DHEC and I said ‘Look, I want every precaution taken,’ for the safety of the officers.”
Davis said he spoke with a DHEC nurse Thursday, as well as Templeton.
Tuberculosis is spread through the air when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks or sings, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The disease mostly affects the lungs. People who get the disease often spit up blood, cough a lot and experience chest pains and night sweats, while also losing weight.
The disease is not as common in North America as in Asia or Africa. South Carolina had 122 cases of tuberculosis in 2012, according to DHEC statistics. Not everyone who has the germ gets tuberculosis, but it can increase chances of developing the illness.
Concerns about tuberculosis are rampant in Greenwood County these days because it is unclear how much contact the school employee had with children and other members of the public while he has been sick. All told, DHEC has determined that 63 people, including 53 children, have the TB germ. Eleven, including 10 children, showed abnormal chest X-rays, which verified the disease.
A second school employee in the Ninety Six-area district was identified Wednesday as having infectious tuberculosis, but that person has cooperated with DHEC and is confined inside his or her home. The neighboring Greenwood area school district also has put a notice on its website telling parents to call a hotline if they need information about the disease.
DHEC officials said earlier this week they do not believe children at schools other than Ninety Six Primary were exposed to the infected person. But Templeton said the agency had less certainty about others the uncooperative man came in contact with.
DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden did not return telephone calls seeking comment Thursday. According to DHEC’s order, the man will be detained for treatment at the Farrow Road facility for 30 days or “until you are no longer considered to be infectious.”
The Columbia Regional Care Center, one of the most secure facilities in South Carolina, provides treatment for people considered not competent to stand trial or who are not guilty of crimes by reason of insanity. The facility has 24-hour nursing care. In some cases, violent sexual predators have been kept at the facility.
Thursday’s action by DHEC is a first for South Carolina under a 2011 law that allows the agency to detain someone who presents a health threat, the department says.
The department earlier ordered the infected person to stay home, wear a mask when in contact with other people and not to travel on public transportation, such as buses. The agency also has ordered the man to disclose the identities of people at risk of exposure.
But the person did not comply with the directive, officials say. That prompted DHEC to issue Thursday’s emergency public health order. The order says the department confirmed May 31 that the man remained infectious to other people, but “you have provided false and conflicting information” to DHEC staff and left home without permission.
It is not known where the man lives, but Davis said he believes it is in the Greenwood area, about nine miles away from Ninety Six. If the man does not comply with treatment for tuberculosis, DHEC said in the order that could file a court petition to keep the man in isolation until the diseases clears up.