DHEC denies hiding Greenwood TB outbreak

sfretwell@thestate.comJune 7, 2013 

  • A timeline

    Early March: Ninety Six Primary School employee suspected of exposing students to tuberculosis stops working at the school

    March 28: DHEC officials walk through the school with school officials but discuss only the possibility of an infectious disease problem, district officials say

    April 8: School superintendent says he began calling DHEC, looking for information to relay to parents.

    May 27: DHEC tells superintendent it has identified a person with contagious tuberculosis

    May 28: Schools and DHEC send home notes to parents explaining threat; testing offered later in week

    June 3: Test results show more than 50 students at Ninety Six Primary School are positive for TB germ

— State health officials fired back Friday at complaints that they stifled the release of information about an outbreak of tuberculosis in a Ninety Six school.

Greenwood County school officials were notified of a problem with a contagious disease after health officials tested 38 school employees and others in March and early April, said Catherine Templeton, director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“The school was told in March,” Templeton said in a statement Friday. “In addition, the school staff was heavily involved in the investigation and was being tested. I’m not sure how the superintendent/acting principal missed it.”

Her denial of keeping the inquiry quiet came a day after a Ninety Six school official said DHEC thwarted efforts to let families know of the problem before last week.

Ninety Six school superintendent Mark Petersen told The State newspaper Thursday that he begged DHEC for information after touring Ninety Six Primary School with DHEC officials in March. But Petersen said he had trouble getting enough detail about the contagious disease investigation to relay information to parents.

Petersen said he made at least 13 phone calls to DHEC beginning April 8, trying to get information, but was not told about an infectious employee until May 27. Letters to parents went out May 28.

This week’s exchange between DHEC and the district came amid a flurry of developments Friday over how to best protect people exposed to tuberculosis in Ninety Six:

• A circuit judge Friday afternoon issued an order requiring DHEC to open on weekends in Greenwood County to help treat the dozens of children who have tested positive for tuberculosis. Judge Eugene Griffith’s order says DHEC’s Greenwood health department must stay open on Saturdays and Sundays.

DHEC is helping with treatment to make sure the medication works. Any break in treatment for tuberculosis can render the treatment ineffective, attorneys said.

Agency spokesman Mark Plowden said Friday night that DHEC’s Greenwood health department office would be open from 11 a.m. until noon Saturday and Sunday for 10 individuals who have been receiving treatment. But the agency’s infectious disease doctor, Richard Ervin, said in a statement that the three medications being used were administered to patients during this week and are not scheduled for use this weekend.

The State newspaper learned Friday that lawmakers are working on a House budget proviso that would help pay for tuberculosis treatment, surveillance and investigation. The amount of money under consideration was not immediately available.

• Billy Garrett, a Greenwood lawyer, filed suit this week against DHEC and the Ninety Six school district, calling on state officials to provide free tests for anyone worried about exposure to the contagious disease.

Garrett’s lawsuit, which seeks class action status, ask for unspecified damages from DHEC and Greenwood County schools. It accuses state and school officials of neglect and failure to prevent widespread exposure by not disclosing the problem much sooner.

“Only as a result of complete incompetence or an absolutely lackadaisical attitude could our children have been continuously exposed to this deadly and horrible disease,” Garrett said.

DHEC's Plowden disputed that.

"This lawsuit is a distraction from the real work being done around the clock by DHEC medical professionals to protect this community,'' Plowden said. " It does nothing to help the effort, and is a waste of time.''

Offering free tests to let people know about exposure “is no less than what the (state) government did last fall when it provided free credit protection for people who had their personal information stolen by computer hackers” from state revenue officials who oversee income taxes, Garrett said.

DHEC on Friday reported testing 591 persons so far, 487 of them students. Of those, 63 people, 53 of them students, have tested positive in TB skin tests. Eleven people, including 10 students, have shown abnormal chest x-rays, which indicates tuberculosis disease. They are being treated with drugs for the disease, which causes coughing, chest pain and if untreated, death.

Petersen was not available Friday, but Templeton said DHEC isn’t to blame.

“It was DHEC who instructed the school to tell the parents about the potential exposure,” she said. “It was DHEC who offered to host a public meeting with a medical doctor so the parents could understand the risks. It was DHEC who found funding to test the children, which was over and beyond CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control) guidelines. We are here to help.”

Tests of this type take time, Templeton said, promising a “lengthy and comprehensive” investigation.

“This will not be finished quickly,” she said.

State health officials have confined the man they say is the source of the outbreak – believed to be a school janitor – to prevent further problems.

Templeton previously said there was no imminent health threat but conceded the agency could have handled he situation better.

She fired two employees and left open the chance for more disciplinary steps later.

Templeton also has said the exposure happened in the winter before DHEC learned of the situation March 8.

“The damage was done before the case was even referred to DHEC,” her statement said. “Blaming DHEC for TB is like blaming a policeman for a car accident.”

A timeline

Early March: Ninety Six Primary School employee suspected of exposing students to tuberculosis stops working at the school

March 28: DHEC officials walk through the school with school officials but discuss only the possibility of an infectious disease problem, district officials say

April 8: School superintendent says he began calling DHEC, looking for information to relay to parents.

May 27: DHEC tells superintendent it has identified a person with contagious tuberculosis

May 28: Schools and DHEC send home notes to parents explaining threat; testing offered later in week

June 3: Test results show more than 50 students at Ninety Six Primary School are positive for TB germ

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537, Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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