COLUMBIA, SC — A tuberculosis outbreak in Greenwood County that was spread by a school employee may prompt South Carolina legislators to propose requiring more testing of school staff.
For decades, state law has required that applicants for any job at a school or day care be evaluated for tuberculosis and provide proof from a doctor before starting work that they don't have the contagious disease. But the law requires no follow-up testing.
Catherine Templeton, director of the state's public health agency, told senators Thursday she thinks periodic testing of staff is a “wonderful idea.”
“It's a vulnerable population, to be around children,” she said, comparing the exposure risk to hospitals, which often require yearly TB testing of their doctors.
Her response came as senators questioned her for hours about her agency's investigation into an outbreak that began with a janitor at Ninety-Six Primary School, who's worked full-time in the district since 2005.
His case was very advanced by the time he was removed from the school in early March, Templeton said.
While 12 school employees were tested in mid-April, it wasn't until late May that parents were officially notified of the situation, and students and other faculty were tested for the disease. Templeton apologized again to senators for mistakes that left residents of the town of just 2,000 people in the dark while rumors circulated.
More than 100 people, including more than 50 children, tested positive for germs associated with the airborne disease. The vast majority of those show no symptoms. The 12 who developed active tuberculosis disease include the janitor – whom Templeton ordered quarantined when he wouldn't stay home – and 10 children who are not contagious. The Department of Health and Environmental Control is paying for the treatment of those 12.
Legislators asked Templeton for suggestions on legal changes to avoid another such debacle.
“Do you think it would be appropriate, maybe after five years, to be retested? Suppose somebody was working there 25 years and only had the test at the beginning,” said Sen. Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood, a retired educator.
“I couldn't agree more,” Templeton said. “Absolutely.”
Whether the idea takes off when legislators return in January could come down to money.
“We would be supportive of anything that helps with the safety and health of students, but mindful of the fiscal costs,” said Debbie Elmore, spokeswoman for the state School Boards Association.
What it would cost and who would pay is unclear.
The superintendent of Ninety-Six schools, Mark Peterson, said Thursday his district expects to pay about $1,200 for 120 people in other Ninety-Six schools who wanted to be tested but weren't covered by DHEC. The school board chose to make the offer amid rising fears, he said.
The district had also expected to reimburse the agency $1,800 for the testing of the primary school's faculty and 4-year-old students.
Even after Templeton got personally involved in late May, agency officials told parents and school employees at a community meeting that those groups wouldn't be tested. Deeming that unacceptable, Peterson said he told attendees he'd find a way to test them. After contacting Templeton, he said he signed an agreement May 31 pledging to pay the $1,800 but was informed several days later that DHEC would cover the cost.