tuberculosis outbreak

EXCLUSIVE: Suspected disease carrier was ill before being banned from school

July 12, 2013 

hepatitis B virus close to human cells

ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

— A school janitor suspected of spreading tuberculosis in Greenwood County struggled with illness before the state health department banned him from coming to work and being around young students, records show.

The man, whose name has not been released, missed 11 days due to sickness during the 2012-2013 school year prior to March 8, when the Department of Health and Environmental Control told him to stay away from Ninety Six Primary School because of the infectious disease.

Seven of the sick days he took stretched from Feb. 14 through Feb. 22, according to a Greenwood County school district absentee report obtained by The State newspaper under a Freedom of Information Act open records request. Records show the man has put in for sick days every year since 2006. He had more total sick days during the 2012-13 school year than any other single year, records show.

The documents provide little new insight in an ongoing dispute between DHEC and Greenwood School District 52 about why more than 50 children now infected by TB were not tested until late May and why parents weren’t informed sooner about the threat.

But the district records do support contentions by DHEC that the man had tuberculosis, and was therefore contagious, before agency nurses learned about it from a local doctor. Department officials have said the schoolchildren infected with the TB germ may have gotten it during the winter, although the man’s illness could date as far back as mid-summer 2012.

“The damage was done before the case was even referred to DHEC,” the agency said in a statement Friday when asked about the records.

Tuberculosis is a potentially deadly disease spread through the air when infectious people cough, sneeze or breathe. The disease can be treated through a rigid schedule of medication, which often takes six to nine months. People with tuberculosis often cough, spit up blood or body fluids, and experience chest pain.

While rare in the United States today, compared to a century ago, it does crop up – and it can be deadly if not treated. More than 1 million people died worldwide from TB-related infections in 2011, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to school district documents, the janitor began work with Ninety Six schools in 2003 as a part-time employee, before taking a full-time job with the district in May 2005. The records indicate he worked five years in another Greenwood County school district before coming to Ninety Six, a tiny town 70 miles northwest of Columbia that is known for Revolutionary War battles and a big-league baseball player who wore the number 96.

The suspected disease carrier is 60 to 70 years old, a local gospel singer and a long-time resident of Greenwood, neighbors told The State newspaper last month. His neighbors have said he was friendly but kept to himself.

Attempts to find someone to speak on the man’s behalf have been unsuccessful, but DHEC says he was uncooperative with them. He visited a grocery store and a home improvement warehouse after being told to stay at home to prevent exposure to the public, DHEC records show.

On June 6, the agency ordered the man detained in a secure facility on Farrow Road in Columbia to prevent him from infecting others. Last week, the department said, it persuaded a state judge to keep the man confined until he gets well.

Questions continue to arise, however, about why DHEC waited so long to lock the man up – and whether delays in testing children allowed tuberculosis to develop. Although more than 50 kids are positive for the germ, 10 children tested have contracted tuberculosis. DHEC tested them May 31, some two months after learning of the man’s illness.

Three DHEC nurses fired over the their handling of the issue say upper-level management thwarted their efforts to notify the public and test children. They claim some ranking employees were distracted while forming a private tuberculosis consulting company.

DHEC has yet to respond to a FOIA documents request from the newspaper, although officials say they are working on it.

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