The search for a tuberculosis-infected patient who walked away from a Columbia hospital this week ended Wednesday night in North Carolina, when the man showed up at a Lumberton medical center and asked for help.
A spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control said the man, who police identified as 57-year-old Louis Rainone, said his agency has recommended that the patient be placed under a “secure watch.’’ He was receiving treatment Wednesday night after seeking medication, DHEC spokesman Mark Plowden said in a text message to The State newspaper.
Plowden said the man is at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton, an eastern North Carolina city not far from the South Carolina border. No further details were immediately available, but Wednesday night’s news ended a frenzied search in the Columbia area and cooled fears about the man’s potential to infect the public with the contagious and sometimes deadly disease.
The man, who was believed to be from North Carolina, was considered contagious enough to spread tuberculosis to the general public, according to the Columbia Police Department and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department. The departments also released a photograph of the man.
“Mr. Rainone has a very contagious form of tuberculosis,” interim Columbia Police Chief Ruben Santiago said Wednesday afternoon..
Rainone left Palmetto Health Richland hospital sometime Tuesday afternoon without proper medication to treat tuberculosis, a disease that takes six to nine months to cure, state and local authorities say. It was not known if Rainone drove away from the hospital or was on foot, but both police and sheriff’s officials said he has had a history of homelessness.
The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, after learning he had left the hospital, issued an emergency public health order at about 6 p.m. Tuesday seeking to detain the patient, Plowden said in a text message to The State newspaper.
But DHEC’s initiative to detain the man apparently didn’t reach some law enforcement agencies for hours – and Sheriff Leon Lott said that was a major blunder.
Lott said his department didn’t know to begin looking for Rainone until late Tuesday, only after the Columbia Police Department notified his office. DHEC did not contact the sheriff’s department until Wednesday, sheriff’s spokesman Chris Cowan said.
“They totally botched any official notification,” Lott said. “As soon as they were aware he was gone, we should have been notified immediately.”
DHEC director Catherine Templeton, through an email late Wednesday from Plowden, defended her agency's actions, saying the department's work located the patient in North Carolina.
"Swift efforts taken by DHEC resulted in this patient being safely located,'' Templeton's statement said. "Sheriff Lott is misinformed,''
Columbia police spokeswoman Jennifer Timmons said her agency sent out an alert to law enforcement officers asking them to be on the lookout for the tuberculosis patient.
Tuberculosis is a relatively rare disease in the United States today, but has been a concern in South Carolina recently following an outbreak in Greenwood County that infected more than 50 schoolchildren with the tuberculosis germ. In that case, the state health department detained a school janitor suspected of spreading the disease in the Upstate county.
The patient who left Palmetto Health Richland in Columbia is not connected to the Greenwood County outbreak.
In Columbia, DHEC said the local patient did not have the necessary medication with him after he left the hospital.
DHEC, South Carolina’s chief environmental agency and public health department, can issue orders to detain diseased patients who present a health threat to the public, as it did in the recent case in Greenwood County. A probate court can also issue orders.
Tuberculosis can be fatal without proper treatment, but it often can be cured with medicine over a period of months. It can be spread by coughing, sneezing or even singing. People most vulnerable are those exposed to infectious patients in confined areas.
Lott said the patient had apparently been at Palmetto Richland for months, but had begun threatening to leave the hospital in May. He said DHEC should have issued an order against his departure before the man walked away.
“This was a danger to the community,’’ Lott said. “Look what happened.”