S.C. Legislature

Botched SC disease probe sparks call for hearing

sfretwell@thestate.comJuly 16, 2013 

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A misguided probe of infectious disease in a small town landed the state health department in the crosshairs of legislators Tuesday.

A state Senate committee will meet with health department leaders next month to discuss why the agency didn’t move faster on the tuberculosis investigation in Greenwood County, where more than 50 young school children have been infected.

During the Aug. 8 Senate Medical Affairs Committee meeting, officials with the Department of Health and Environmental Control are expected to explain what went wrong and what they are doing to make sure similar missteps don’t occur again.

Among the main concerns are why DHEC didn’t test children at Ninety Six Primary School for more than two months after learning that a school janitor had tuberculosis – and why their parents were left in the dark for so long.

Committee chairman Harvey Peeler called for the meeting Tuesday after receiving a request from two other senators who serve on the committee. The session will be held in Columbia at the Senate’s Gressette office building at 1 p.m.

“I feel it is important that all Medical Affairs Committee members hear from DHEC regarding the tuberculosis outbreak, the department’s response, the procedures in place to notify the public of such outbreaks and any pending or forthcoming litigation,” Peeler, R-Cherokee, said Tuesday in announcing the meeting.

Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said he and fellow Democrat Floyd Nicholson of Greenwood asked for the meeting for a simple reason: Problems with the Ninety Six disease investigation are bigger than they usually encounter with state agencies.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but this one seems to be a little bit more monumental in its scope,” Hutto said.

DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said the agency is eager to tell the story of what went wrong and what it is doing to improve. Plowden’s response came a day after department director Catherine Templeton told The State newspaper that “DHEC screwed this up.”

Templeton has acknowledged firing four employees she says are most responsible for blunders made during the probe. And progress improved dramatically after she stepped in, said Templeton, who claims she was left in the dark for more than a month by her staff.

“Director Templeton welcomes the opportunity to meet with the committee, and to share all of the steps that have been required to protect the town of Ninety Six,” Plowden said Tuesday. “We have been working hard to identify problems, fix them, and restore accountability to and public confidence in this agency.”

Parents have been incensed that, despite rumors throughout the spring, DHEC never told them tuberculosis was a concern at the school until May 28, when notes went home in their kids’ book bags. DHEC learned that the janitor likely had tuberculosis on March 8 and an agency TB doctor has called the case one of the worst he has seen. When asked about the investigation in April by a local reporter, a DHEC spokesman declined to answer questions.

Templeton’s version of events contrasts with three of four nurses she fired. The three nurses have sued DHEC for wrongful termination, claiming that they tried to jump-start the investigation, tell parents and test the children, but were stymied by DHEC bureaucrats in Columbia.

One nurse claims that agency inaction in Columbia endangered the lives of the young students – a point Templeton denies. Records produced through the suits also show that two employees in DHEC’s Columbia office formed a private consulting firm that the former nurses claim impeded the investigation.

In legal responses Tuesday to the lawsuits, DHEC said regional staff members violated agency policy by waiting six days to launch the investigation, when they were supposed to begin within 24 hours. The department also said an agency supervisor brought the infected patient to the department’s office in Greenwood County, which threatened to infect others at the clinic. The agency’s response also said a regional staff member told the infected man not to tell his employer – the Ninety Six school district – about his illness.

Tuberculosis is a contagious disease that can be cured with proper medication, but it also can be deadly if not treated. The disease is often characterized by coughing, chest pain and spitting up blood. It is spread through the air when infected people cough, sing or even breathe.

Children who tested positive for the TB germ during May 31 medical exams are being treated. Most of the 53 kids do not have the disease, only bacteria that could lead to tuberculosis if not treated. But 10 of the children actually have tuberculosis. In addition to school children, more than 50 additional adults in the school and people in the community have tested positive for the germ.

The tuberculosis outbreak in Ninety Six is the worst in Greenwood County in a decade and one of the worst in the state during the same period.

Reach Fretwell at (803) 771-8537.

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