The state health department board gave its director a vote of confidence Wednesday for her handling of a tuberculosis investigation that has drawn criticism in Greenwood County, where 53 schoolchildren tested positive for tuberculosis more than two months after the health agency learned of the threat.
Following a private telephone conference call, the Department of Health and Environmental Control Board voted unanimously to commend director Catherine Templeton for “her transparent and professional handling” of the TB crisis in the small community Ninety Six. The board’s resolution also praised Templeton for her efforts to reform the agency since taking office in March 2012.
Board members, who chose Templeton for the post last year, did not say what impressed them about her response on the tuberculosis issue, nor did they provide details on why they are happy with her overall performance. Since Wednesday’s vote was taken by conference call, board members were not available to answer the media’s questions.
Only board member Clarence Batts spoke after the unanimous vote Wednesday.
“Catherine has done an excellent job for the department overall in her year and a half with us, in really helping to make DHEC one DHEC and everybody functioning together,’’ Batts said.
Wednesday’s vote should come as no surprise, but it puts the board – appointed by Gov. Nikki Haley – on record for the first time about the Greenwood County tuberculosis investigation.
The board held another private meeting last week to discuss the TB outbreak, one of the worst in the western South Carolina county in about a decade. DHEC knew a school janitor likely had tuberculosis in early March and ordered him not to return to school, but the agency didn’t tell parents or test children until the end of May.
Templeton has said her actions the week of May 20th, which eventually included firing at least four staff members and ordering testing, sped up the slow-moving probe. She claims she did not know of any problems with the investigation until a random visit to DHEC’s Greenwood health clinic May 20 and 21.
Some state senators remain unconvinced, saying Templeton conceded in a hearing that she knew about the probe well before May 20.
Wednesday’s DHEC board vote drew a critical response from Sen. Joel Lourie, a Columbia Democrat who has blasted Templeton’s management style since taking office and her agency’s handling of the TB outbreak. Lourie was among key senators last week who grilled Templeton at a legislative hearing about the tuberculosis investigation. He said people are still upset about DHEC’s response, even now.
“I am not sure what planet Nikki Haley’s DHEC board is living on, but back here on earth in South Carolina, things are a lot different,” Lourie said. “We have families who are angry about the bureaucratic responses and medical treatment they are still receiving from DHEC. We have a commissioner in Mrs. Templeton, who has once again exposed our taxpayers to the costs of expensive litigation due to her knee-jerk reactions and personnel moves. And we have a board that meets in secret, but won’t discuss this issue in public.”
Templeton, who did not attend or participate in Wednesday’s board conference call, said she appreciated the board’s resolution to support her.
“I continue to be encouraged by the board’s confidence in our dedicated group of professionals,” Templeton said in a statement released through the department’s media relations office. “Their support enables us to do what is right to protect public health and the environment, without the influence of politics or emotion.”
Templeton has made sweeping changes at the health and environmental agency, long criticized for being too lethargic and bureaucratic. Haley has been supportive of Templeton’s overall efforts and her response in the Greenwood County tuberculosis probe.