TB outbreak

Ex-DHEC worker says kids put at risk by agency inaction

sfretwell@thestate.comJuly 12, 2013 

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SARAH HOWLING — istockphoto.com

— A former state health department nurse says children were put at “extreme risk” when the agency’s headquarters office failed to move rapidly on a tuberculosis threat in Greenwood County, where more than 50 young students have been infected.

Malinda Martin spoke out Thursday to say that she and regional staff members pleaded with the department’s Columbia office to let them test schoolchildren for tuberculosis in mid-April but were rebuffed by higher-level officials.

The Department of Health and Environmental Control didn’t approve telling parents about the tuberculosis threat until May 28 and did not test children until May 31 – more than two months after learning about TB at Ninety Six Primary School on March 8.

“We had major concerns with the children in the school and the people in the community” said Martin, who worked at DHEC 21 years before she was fired after the controversy arose in May. “We had more than sufficient data to warrant testing. For whatever reason, we were not given permission. In fact, we were advised not to.”

Martin, regional program manager for tuberculosis in the Upstate, and two other regional nurses say they’re being made scapegoats by top agency officials. They are suing DHEC and its tuberculosis control director for damages and to get their jobs back. In addition to Martin, long-time DHEC nurses Anne Ashley and Latrinia Richard also were fired over their handling of the case.

Veteran state tuberculosis control director Shea Rabley and DHEC TB nurse consultant Tammy McKenna are among the higher-level agency staff members that Martin accuses of moving too slowly. Rabley and McKenna formed a private tuberculosis consulting firm May 17 that Martin’s lawyers say slowed down the investigation because they were, at the very least, distracted by their new business.

Rabley has not been available. McKenna declined comment this week. DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said Thursday he could not comment.

Tuberculosis is a contagious lung disease spread through the air when infectious people cough, sneeze or breathe. The disease can be treated, but medicines must be taken on a strict schedule for six to nine months. It is characterized by coughing, spitting up blood or body fluids, and chest pain.

If untreated, tuberculosis can be fatal. The disease is relatively rare in the United States, but more than 1 million people died worldwide from TB-related infections in 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A key question in the unfolding Greenwood County drama is whether children could have been protected from tuberculosis if testing had occurred sooner.

More than 50 children tested positive for the germ, although they do not yet have the disease. But 10 young students also have contracted the disease. Children are particularly vulnerable to tuberculosis.

In a recent email to The State newspaper, the CDC said some people can develop TB disease in a matter of weeks.

“The argument could be made that if we had known they had the germ in their body, we could have started prevention in enough time to have avoided them actually developing TB disease,” Martin said in an interview with The State.

Martin, and her Upstate attorneys John Reckenbeil and Bradley Bennett, called Thursday for Gov. Nikki Haley to re-instate the dismissed workers. DHEC’s Columbia office fired them, saying they should have taken more initiative and blaming them for putting kids at risk.

Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey said “The governor’s office does not have the authority to reinstate former DHEC employees.”

Nonetheless, Democratic state Sen. Vincent Sheheen, who plans to run against Haley next year, said he’s bothered by the way DHEC handled the tuberculosis investigation in Greenwood County.

“It was an inexcusable failure on the part of state government,” Sheheen said.

The person suspected of spreading tuberculosis to children is a school janitor who stopped working at Ninety Six Primary on March 8. DHEC has committed the man to a detention facility in Columbia until he no longer is contagious. But DHEC did not commit him until early June – after records show he visited Greenwood County retail stores.

Officials in the Ninety Six school district have said they tried to get information from DHEC in April, but received little or no details about the issue until Memorial Day – even though parents were beginning to ask what was going on at the school.

A voice mail from Martin, provided to The State by the Ninety Six school district, states that she could not get cooperation from the Columbia headquarters staff. The voice mail was left April 17 on the phone of Ninety Six superintendent Mark Petersen, records show.

“I am so sorry. I just am so frustrated. I have not heard anything. We’ve gotten all the information together. We’ve sent it to our central office,” Martin’s voice mail said. “I am so, so sorry. But we are working on it. I just feel terrible. I know you are anxious. I’m anxious. We just don’t know any answers about anything just right now. But I’ve asked them. They know that we need to know. I just wanted to get back with you. Again, I’m very sorry.”

Martin said Thursday that agency officials would not let them send a fact sheet out to parents or give out any information.

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