Editorial: Open communication needed to address TB outbreak

IT’S UNDERSTANDABLE — and natural — for residents in the tiny Greenwood County town of Ninety Six to respond with anger and fear over not having been told sooner that children at a local elementary school had been exposed to tuberculosis.

S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and school officials knew something was amiss at least two months before notices were sent home alerting parents. But neither DHEC nor school officials are accepting blame for the delayed notification.

While it’s not clear that there was any imminent public threat — DHEC director Catherine Templeton said there wasn’t — it would have been prudent to notify the public sooner out of an abundance of caution.

Despite being treatable and less menacing than it once was, tuberculosis still elicits fear; if it’s left untreated, it can be deadly. Warning residents would have been a wise precaution, especially since it’s unknown how many people have come in contact with the two school employees suspected of spreading the disease. It’s particularly troubling that DHEC says one of the employees wasn’t cooperative and refused to stay confined, forcing the agency to take the unusual step of detaining him at a Columbia facility.

We don’t know whose fault it was that information wasn’t released sooner. But what’s abundantly clear, given their strident disagreement over who is to blame for the delay, is that DHEC and school officials were not on the same page with this public health threat. No matter how small it was perceived to be, officials not only should have collaborated more closely but also should have had ongoing discussions about when to alert the public rather than leaving citizens exposed and clueless.

Greenwood District 52 superintendent Mark Petersen said he wanted to inform the public about a contagious disease investigation this spring, but DHEC wouldn’t cooperate. Mr. Petersen said he made at least 13 phone calls to the state agency, “begging” for information, but that DHEC did not tell him that a person who worked at Ninety Six Primary School had tuberculosis until May 27. Notes were sent home to parents the next day.

Ms. Templeton said school officials were notified of a problem after health officials tested 38 school employees and others in March and early April. She said the agency notified those who might be at risk instead of issuing a public statement and that the school was free to notify parents.

Still, Ms. Templeton acknowledged that DHEC could have handled matters better. She fired two DHEC employees and said more disciplinary action could be forthcoming.

The priority now isn’t to focus on the communication breakdown. Authorities on all levels must unite to ensure that all who might have been exposed are tested and, if needed, given proper treatment.

More than 600 people have been tested. Of the 99 who have tested positive for the tuberculosis germ as of Wednesday, 74 are students and others associated with Ninety Six Primary School; the 25 others are mostly close associates and relatives of the two school employees suspected of spreading the disease germ. State health officials have said those who test positive will be cured as long as they adhere to the strict medical regimen required.

As critical as it is to address obvious health concerns, it also is important to reassure this community, which has been rocked psychologically and emotionally, and the entire state. Even as officials work to stop the spread of the disease, they must also seek to calm the spread of fear and hysteria. The way to do that is to educate residents, make sure people are tested and to provide regular public updates.