COLUMBIA, SC — The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control learned that a handful of schoolchildren were positive for tuberculosis in early April, but waited nearly two months to begin testing most of the other children at Ninety Six Primary School, an attorney who is suing DHEC said Thursday.
Spartanburg lawyer John Reckenbeil, who is representing a fired DHEC worker, called the agency’s delay in testing the remaining children a “total failure” in protecting their health.
Reckenbeil’s allegations, outlined in a wrongful termination suit by Malinda Martin, indicate that DHEC knew children had been infected with the TB germ long before telling the public. DHEC previously has said it knew a school janitor was sick in early March but hasn’t said when the first children tested positive.
The agency didn’t tell the public or launch testing of more than 400 school children at Ninety Six Primary School until the last week in May.
The lag in testing most kids raises questions about whether those who now have tuberculosis could have avoided getting the disease – if DHEC had checked them sooner.
“It is the number one thing for a government to protect the safety and welfare and health of its citizens,” Reckenbeil said in an interview with The State. “That increases when it goes to children, who don’t have the ability to make decisions for themselves and must rely on adults to properly get medical treatment.”
Attempts to reach a DHEC spokesman for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
The Ninety Six tuberculosis outbreak is among the worst in South Carolina in at least a decade. Since DHEC began extensive testing of children in late May, more than 50 youngsters have had positive skin test readings for the disease.
Of those, 10 have had abnormal chest X-rays, showing they had actually developed the disease, according to agency news releases in early June. All told, between 90 and 100 people have tested positive in the Ninety Six area.
Reckenbeil said Thursday he has documents showing that seven school children and one adult tested positive in tuberculosis tests in early April.
Agency director Catherine Templeton has said she fired two employees who failed to take action to test most of the children at Ninety Six Elementary. Reckenbeil said Thursday that two other workers might also have been let go.
A school janitor is suspected of spreading the disease. In a rare move, DHEC detained the man earlier this month for what it said was a failure to limit his exposure to others. The agency brought him to Columbia, where he is being kept in a secure medical facility until he is no longer contagious.
Tuberculosis, a disease spread through the air, can cause people to cough violently and spit up blood, and it can be fatal, if left untreated. Those who tested positive for the germ in Ninety Six must follow an aggressive program requiring regular medication for months.
Martin’s wrongful termination lawsuit is the first by fired agency employees to become public in the tuberculosis case. Martin’s lawsuit paints the picture of a dedicated DHEC staffer who was thwarted by supervisors in her attempt to test the school children, then fired for not showing more initiative to get them tested.
“The delay is the key,” Reckenbeil said. “Employees were screaming and hollering and yelling from the mountaintop, saying we need help. But Columbia is saying no.”
Reckenbeil also backed up Ninety Six schools superintendent Mark Petersen, who told The State earlier this month that DHEC had failed to tell him about the tuberculosis threat in April so that he could relay the information to parents. Templeton has said DHEC provided plenty of information. The State has asked to see copies of what was provided.
Martin was “emotional with me about the fact that she felt the principal and superintendent were kept in the dark,” Reckenbeil said. “They were begging for help as to what to tell parents.”