Within days of learning he had tested positive for tuberculosis, the prime suspect in a state disease investigation visited a grocery store and a home improvement warehouse – despite orders to stay home so others in Greenwood County would not become infected, according to an email released Thursday as part of a lawsuit.
The suspect, a janitor at an elementary school, is believed to be the source of a major tuberculosis outbreak that has infected about 100 young students and adults in Ninety Six, a small community about 70 miles northwest of Columbia.
Spartanburg lawyer John Reckenbeil sued the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control on Thursday on behalf of two fired agency workers, about a week after filing suit on behalf of a fired regional program manager.
He said top DHEC officials could have protected the Greenwood County community if they had acted sooner to detain the sick man.
DHEC knew he had tested positive for tuberculosis by March 8, but didn’t issue a public health order to detain and isolate the man until June 6.
The fired workers told agency supervisors about an array of concerns, but top DHEC officials were slow to act, the suits say. Only DHEC’s Columbia office could issue orders to detain the man, Reckenbeil said in an interview with The State.
“They should have issued that public health order right away,” Reckenbeil said of DHEC’s top management. “Who knows who he (was) out there infecting?”
The email provides the first details of how the TB suspect behaved after learning he had tested positive. DHEC director Catherine Templeton has said only that the person was uncooperative. The agency has declined to name the suspected disease carrier, citing medical privacy laws. DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley declined comment when asked for an agency response to the lawsuits Thursday.
Tuberculosis is contagious disease that can cause people to cough extensively, spit up blood and experience chest pain. If left untreated, it can be lethal. It typically is spread through the air in confined spaces.
All told, more than 70 people associated with Ninety Six Primary School have tested positive for tuberculosis in skin tests, while more than 20 others in the community have had positive skin tests, according to DHEC. Of the more than 70 with positive tests at the school, 10 students and two staff members have had abnormal chest X-rays, showing the presence of the tuberculosis disease. All are being treated, DHEC says.
The Ninety Six outbreak, one of the worst in South Carolina in a decade, has produced a torrent of criticism from parents of children who attend Ninety Six Primary School. Many say DHEC kept them in the dark for two months, refusing to acknowledge the threat of tuberculosis at the school and failing to test children promptly.
Reckenbeil said he’s particularly concerned that school children were not tested sooner. If that had happened, some of the 10 who have the disease might not have developed tuberculosis, he said.
But there are also questions about the spread of the disease in the community at large. According to a March 11 email written by now-fired-DHEC worker Latrinia Richard, the disease suspect said he went to a Price Wise grocery store and a Lowe’s home improvement store the weekend after being told to stay out of public places. The TB patient said he wore a mask, but the email said Richard had told him to avoid public places.
“My biggest concern is keeping this (person) from public places,” Richard, a regional DHEC health supervisor, wrote in the email at the time to several DHEC supervisors.
Concerns were expressed “that he is not going to follow these restrictions,” the email said. The email said the man agreed to leave work March 8, a move that limited exposure to students after that.
Templeton’s June 6 order sent the man to a secure, prison-like facility in Columbia, where he must remain until no longer contagious.
The lawsuits filed Thursday were on behalf of Richard and ex-DHEC case manager Anne Ashley. They say they are being made scapegoats for problems in the disease probe. Reckenbeil filed another suit last week on behalf of a third ex-DHEC employee, supervisor Malinda Martin. The suits, in Greenwood County court, claim wrongful termination and seek compensation for lost wages.