Senators seek answers from DHEC in man’s death

sfretwell@thestate.comAugust 27, 2013 

Two state senators are asking why South Carolina’s health department denied that tuberculosis killed a Greenwood County singer when federal documents show the infectious disease was found in his body and his death was identified as lung failure “secondary to TB.”

Sens. Joel Lourie and Brad Hutto wrote a letter Tuesday to Catherine Templeton, the state health department’s chief, seeking clarification about the man’s death in April in a Greenwood County hospital. The man had been a longtime friend of a school janitor suspected of spreading tuberculosis to schoolchildren and others in the Ninety Six community.

“It is very important that the public have confidence and trust in the information’’ being released by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, their letter said. “In particular, given the serious nature of the Ninety Six TB outbreak, we would respectfully request further clarification on what information DHEC has that supports its statements.’’

An Aug. 16 news release, reiterated Tuesday by DHEC, said the man “did not die of TB.” The agency released a letter Tuesday night from Templeton to the senators saying tuberculosis is not listed on the man’s death certificate. TB was not a secondary cause of death or listed on the death certificate as a significant condition contributing to his demise, she wrote.

But a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, outlined in an Aug. 16 story in The State newspaper, said tuberculosis was identified in the man’s body after he died. The newspaper since has obtained an appendix to the CDC report that says the singer died of “acute respiratory distress syndrome secondary to TB.”

Lourie, D-Richland, and Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said they are interpreting that to mean “that TB was the root cause’’ of the man’s lung failure, according to the letter.

Templeton conceded in her letter to the senators that DHEC staff members identified the singer as having had tuberculosis.

The Ninety Six tuberculosis outbreak left more than 50 schoolchildren infected with TB germs. Ten students actually developed the disease. They are taking medication to fight tuberculosis. About 100 people in the Ninety Six area have had positive skin tests for tuberculosis, a disease that mostly affects the lungs and can be fatal if not treated. It is spread through the air by infected people.

DHEC has been under fire for its handling of the outbreak. The agency didn’t notify parents of the tuberculosis threat for more than two months after learning the janitor likely had the disease. The agency also did not test children for more than two months after learning about the janitor’s ailment.

Records show the 71-year-old janitor and the 79-year-old singer performed in the same musical group and had known each other for years. Neither man’s name has been released by DHEC or the CDC.

The Aug. 7 CDC report said the singer was an American citizen with a history of coronary disease, as well as diabetes. He was transported to a hospital March 26. DHEC investigators located him at the hospital April 9 while conducting the Greenwood County tuberculosis investigation. The report said the 79-year-old had become infectious last September.

The janitor is believed to have become infectious May 18, 2012, according to the CDC. He had tested positive for tuberculosis as early as May 1999, the CDC report said.

Templeton has admitted the agency made mistakes in the slow-moving investigation, but has said DHEC improved its performance after she personally stepped in the week of May 20. Hutto and Lourie have been among her main critics, questioning what her inner circle knew about the tuberculosis threat long before the week of May 20.

One of Templeton’s most trusted aides, Jamie Shuster, was aware of the TB probe in mid-April, records show. Four ex-agency workers have sued DHEC for firing them. Three of them say they tried to get the attention of high-level staff in Columbia that they needed help in addressing the issue.

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