COLUMBIA, SC — Health data released Wednesday show that tuberculosis is affecting more people than the 74 students, teachers and others associated with a Greenwood County elementary school where an outbreak was confirmed last week.
Another 25 people not associated with the school have had positive skin tests for tuberculosis, a lung disease that can cause major bouts of coughing, sneezing and chest pain, and in some cases death, if left untreated.
Wednesday’s revelation brings to 99 the total number of people affected by tuberculosis in Greenwood County, which is in the South Carolina Piedmont about 70 miles northwest of Columbia. The tuberculosis outbreak is the worst in Greenwood County in a decade and among the worst in South Carolina during the same time period, according to data filed with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
The additional 25 cases revealed Wednesday are mostly close associates and relatives of two school employees suspected of spreading the disease germ in Greenwood County, according to DHEC.
“This is an additional pool of people,” DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said. “Those are the people that we have located through our medical investigation as contacts” of the school employees.
“Of those 25, a number of them are family interactions,” Plowden said. “There are a number of family members that have had contact. They do not work at the school, nor do they attend the school.”
Plowden said it’s important to note that none of the 25 additional cases announced Wednesday include anyone the agency has found to be contagious.
That’s significant, he said, because the two school workers to this point are the only known infectious people with tuberculosis disease. The majority of the rest have only tested positive for the TB germ and, if treated, won’t develop the illness, according to DHEC.
The department’s disease investigation, which began in late March but was not revealed to the public until late May, has caused a sensation in Ninety Six, a small community of 2,000 people. Parents have blasted both DHEC and the school district for failing to tell them sooner about the probe and for not testing their children earlier.
Those decisions not to tell the public or test kids before late May prompted a lawsuit last week against DHEC and the Ninety Six school district. Billy Garrett, an attorney handling the suit, said Wednesday anyone who wants a test should be able to get one for free.
DHEC officials have denied allegations in the suit, saying the agency acted properly.
The two contagious people suspected of infecting the 99 Greenwood County residents have been quarantined, one at his or her home. The other, whom DHEC said was uncooperative, was detained and transported to a secure facility in Columbia late last week. DHEC’s detention order, which is believed to be unprecedented, says he must stay at the facility until he gets well and is no longer a threat to the community. It could take months for him to get better.
DHEC officials say the disease is not necessarily spreading, although their probe is continuing. Plowden said the additional 25 cases not associated with the school have been identified since DHEC became aware that one of the school employees had infectious tuberculosis. That was March 8, at which time the agency launched an investigation and that employee stopped working at the school.
Most of the other tests have been conducted on school children and others since the end of May.
Meanwhile Wednesday, DHEC asked a judge to drop a requirement that it remain open in Greenwood County on weekends to treat people for tuberculosis. The agency says treatments are being done on weekdays and are not called for on Saturdays and Sundays. A circuit judge last week ordered DHEC to stay open on weekends. The agency complied but said it was not necessary. The agency says staying open on weekends wastes taxpayer money.