DHEC on the TB hot seat today

sfretwell@thestate.comAugust 7, 2013 

  • If You Go

    What: Hearing on DHEC’s response to disease outbreak

    When: 1 p.m. Thursday

    Where: Room 308, Gressette Senate Office Building, State House grounds

A timeline

March 8: DHEC begins investigation into a case of infectious TB in the town of Ninety Six in Greenwood County.

April 17: Documents obtained by The State newspaper show DHEC’s top health director, Jamie Shuster, knows of the investigation at least this early.

May 20-21: DHEC director Catherine Templeton says she didn’t learn about problems with the probe until visiting a DHEC clinic in Greenwood County.

May 28: DHEC tells parents at Ninety Six Primary School.

May 31: Schoolchildren are tested. Fifty-three test positive for TB germ; 10 of those developed the disease.

In what is expected to be a tense hearing, state senators plan to question South Carolina’s top health official Thursday about why she didn’t act sooner to speed up an infectious disease investigation near Greenwood and how the slow-moving probe affected young schoolchildren.

Catherine Templeton, director at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, faces intense questioning during the hearing in Columbia, where upset senators say they want answers about tuberculosis that infected more than 50 children at Ninety Six Primary School.

DHEC’s performance in Greenwood County also is expected to raise broader questions about its general preparedness to handle a health crisis following events this week in Columbia. The agency drew fire Wednesday from Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott for what he said was DHEC’s failure to notify him for hours after an infectious tuberculosis patient not connected to the Greenwood crisis walked away from a Columbia hospital.

“This raises further doubt about the leadership at DHEC and their ability to manage a public health crisis,” said state Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat and critic of Templeton’s. “The largest local law enforcement department was not (immediately) notified. Explain that one to me.”

In the Greenwood case, one of the main questions centers on what Templeton knew about the investigation and when. The agency’s director said she didn’t learn about problems with the disease probe until visiting a department health clinic May 20 and 21, even though the investigation had started around March 8.

But records obtained recently by The State newspaper show that one of Templeton’s most trusted aides, health director Jamie Shuster, knew about the investigation as early as April 17. Emails show Shuster resisted requests by other agency staffers to notify the public at the time. DHEC didn’t tell parents until May 28 and didn’t test children for tuberculosis until May 31 – a delay that has upset scores of parents worried about their children’s health.

Lourie, a member of the committee holding Thursday’s hearing, said it’s hard for him to understand how Templeton could have been left in the dark about the investigation if Shuster was aware of the probe in mid-April. Templeton hired Shuster, a former staff member to Gov. Nikki Haley, soon after taking over at DHEC in March 2012.

Lourie also said he has seen evidence that the agency’s media relations department was aware of the investigation long before the public was notified.

“We know that (Templeton’s) top advisers knew about this problem in mid-April, so is it true that she was kept completely out of the loop?” Lourie asked. “If so, what does that say about the communication between the director and her senior level management?”

Lourie, who opposed Templeton’s nomination for DHEC director last year, will be joined in questioning DHEC officials by a bipartisan group of lawmakers who serve on the Senate Medical Affairs Committee.

The committee is chaired by Sen. Harvey Peeler, a Cherokee Republican who convened the session at the request of Democratic Sens. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg and Floyd Nicholson of Greenwood. The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. in the Senate’s Gressette Office Building.

Templeton is one of several state and local officials expected to be grilled at the meeting. Ninety School superintendent Mark Petersen also is expected at the meeting.

DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden did not provide comments in response to questions about Thursday’s hearing. Republican Gov. Haley’s office said it is concerned about the tuberculosis crisis in Ninety Six and has met with DHEC, but was assured no children had gotten sick after the agency became involved with the investigation.

The DHEC tuberculosis effort, however, drew fire from her Democratic opponent for governor next year. Camden Sen. Vincent Sheheen issued a statement Wednesday calling on Haley to create a tuberculosis crisis controller to serve as a single point of contact for families dealing with exposure to the disease.

Sheheen’s news release said he met Tuesday with families of children infected with the tuberculosis germ in Ninety Six – and many told him they were frustrated with DHEC’s response.

The release said families recounted stories of their children having bad reactions to tuberculosis medicine and some kids being shunned by their friends, whose parents are afraid to let them play together. Sheheen’s release said one parent had to wait hours for TB treatment for a child, and in one case, a DHEC staffer called across a health clinic room that a child’s TB medicine was ready.

Haley’s office said Sheheen is only trying to score political points.

“It’s a shame that a political ambulance chaser like Sen. Sheheen feels the need to show up and try and further his political agenda whenever we face a challenge in South Carolina,” Haley spokesman Doug Mayer said. “But we won’t let his overwhelming ambition distract us from dealing with what is a serious medical issue for our children.”

Meanwhile, Templeton concedes DHEC “screwed this up” in reference to the initial investigation. But she has blamed lower-level staff members in the Upstate and several top TB officials in Columbia for problems that erupted in the probe.

She has insisted she took swift action after learning of the problems May 20 and 21, including ordering that all school children be tested by May 31. Templeton has fired at least four agency workers she said didn’t act quickly enough. Those workers have sued DHEC, saying they are being made scapegoats by agency management.

The Ninety Six tuberculosis outbreak is the worst in Greenwood County in a decade. All told, more than 100 people associated with the school, as well as those in the community, have tested positive for the germ. Of that, 10 of the 53 schoolchildren infected with the germ actually developed the disease. Tuberculosis can kill people if not treated. It is spread through the air by coughing or sneezing. The suspected source of the TB at Ninety Six Primary School is a long-time janitor who DHEC says refused treatment and was uncooperative.

Nicholson, a former school teacher and assistant principal in Greenwood County, said his main concern is DHEC’s response.

“There has been a lot of talk out there and what I want to focus on is what DHEC did,” Nicholson said. “Did they make a mistake? Did they follow proper protocol in doing what they have to do to protect those citizens? ‘’

Staff writer Adam Beam contributed to this story.

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