The state health department said Friday that a 79-year-old singer from the Greenwood area who died this year was not killed by tuberculosis, even though a federal report says the man had been in contact with an infectious carrier of the disease and was later found to have tuberculosis in his body.
In a news release late Friday afternoon, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said, “The individual did not die of TB. In fact, tuberculosis wasn’t even the secondary cause of death.” An agency spokesman later said in an email that a death certificate does not list TB as the reason the man died.
But the department provided few details beyond that and it did not respond to requests by The State newspaper for an interview to more fully explain Friday’s statements.
The man, whose name has not been released, died after checking into a Georgia hospital in March, a federal report shows. At the time of his death, he was discovered to have been infected with tuberculosis, in addition to having other health problems, according to an Aug. 7 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report obtained this week by The State newspaper.
Democratic state Sens. Brad Hutto of Orangeburg and Joel Lourie of Columbia called on DHEC to explain in detail what happened in the 79-year-old’s death. Both questioned why the CDC would mention the death in its report if there were no suspicion that tuberculosis contributed to his health problems.
“It’s not like somebody else made this up – it’s the CDC that’s making the connection,” Hutto said.
While the CDC study does not conclude that the man died from tuberculosis, it also does not discount the possibility that TB was a factor.
The report said that for years, the man sang in a musical group with a Greenwood County school janitor who is suspected of spreading tuberculosis to young school children and others in the Ninety Six community. The two men last sang together in December 2012, which was about the same time the 79-year-old’s health began to deteriorate noticeably, according to the CDC report.
Statements in the CDC report also said the man and the school janitor were infectious in December. Tuberculosis is spread by coughing, sneezing or singing. Primarily a lung disease, it can be fatal if not treated.
The CDC report, which said DHEC staff had been impressive and knowledgeable, is an examination of the tuberculosis outbreak in Greenwood County that left more than 50 school children infected with the germ. The janitor is the prime suspect in the spread of tuberculosis at Ninety Six Primary School. He also had contact with others in the small community while infectious, records show.
DHEC has been under fire for its slow response to the disease threat. The department learned that the janitor was likely infectious with TB in early March and told him to stay away from the school. But the department did not test children or tell parents about the threat until late May – more than two months later.
Department director Catherine Templeton has said DHEC “screwed this up,” but said she had no knowledge of problems with the investigation until the week of May 20. After that, she ordered public notice and testing for the children, she has said. She also fired three regional DHEC workers and the state’s TB director in Columbia. They have sued DHEC, saying they’re being made scapegoats for mistakes made by higher-level DHEC staff who didn’t support their efforts to address the problem.
Hutto and Lourie were among a cadre of Democratic senators who grilled Templeton and her top health adviser, Jamie Shuster, during a hearing on the TB outbreak last week in Columbia, before the man’s death became public this week.
Emails show that Shuster knew about the tuberculosis investigation a month before Templeton said she became aware of problems. Templeton told senators last week she was aware of a TB probe in Greenwood earlier this past spring, but didn’t know about the problems until she and Shuster visited a DHEC clinic in Greenwood the week of May 20.
“The CDC report certainly suggests that tuberculosis could have been a contributing cause” to the 79-year-old’s death, Lourie said. “If not, there would have been no need to mention this subject to begin with. It would be best, at this point, if Mrs. Templeton and her experts would stop issuing press releases and meet with the media and the public and give us all a full understanding.”
DHEC’s statement said the man who died had no contact with Ninety Six Primary School. The agency also said it has not withheld information about the man’s death, providing the CDC report that outlines the situation to the Senate Medical Affairs Committee. The CDC has referred all comments to DHEC.
Hutto said, however, that he has not heard any public statements about the death from DHEC. He also noted that the CDC report was given to the committee just before it met Aug. 8., giving senators little or no time to digest its contents. Hutto and Lourie are members of the committee.
Both Hutto and Lourie said they still are hearing from people who say they aren’t satisfied with DHEC’s response to the outbreak this summer.
Hutto noted that “as much as DHEC would like this to just go away and pretend like they’ve done everything they needed to do, it is not going away anytime soon.”