COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The director of South Carolina’s public health agency apologized again Thursday for a botched investigation into a tuberculosis outbreak in Greenwood County that left residents in the dark for months as rumors circulated.
The Senate Medical Affairs Committee grilled Catherine Templeton for hours about why it took so long for the agency to notify the public and begin testing children after local health officials were informed that a school janitor likely had the contagious disease.
Templeton said the employee was immediately removed from Ninety-Six Primary in early March. But she agreed the follow-up was too slow, and that it made no sense to not test the children. Templeton tried to assure senators that she addressed the problem after learning about it in late May and fired four people.
“I’ve identified the mistakes. I’ve apologized for them. I’ve held people accountable for those mistakes,” she said during the five-hour meeting. “I assure you that will not happen again.”
But Robin Cobb, a teacher and parent of two at the school, said the agency’s communication continued to be poor after Templeton stepped in. When the agency finally supplied letters to send home with students, the mishandled delivery meant the school had to hold up dismissal that day, worrying parents. During a community meeting on May 29, she said, agency officials could not answer basic questions about the danger. And people were appalled at that meeting to learn the agency still had no intention to test 4-year-olds who attended class across from the janitor’s work space, as well as faculty who hadn’t already been tested.
The agency reversed its stance and did test the entire school after the superintendent spoke with Templeton.
“I want this nightmare to be over,” said Cobb, whose 8-year-old son is among the dozen people who have developed active tuberculosis disease.
More than 100 people in the rural community, including more than 50 children, have tested positive for germs associated with tuberculosis, a disease spread through the air. The vast majority of those showed no symptoms. The 12 who developed active tuberculosis disease include the janitor — who Templeton ordered quarantined when he wouldn’t stay home — and 10 children who are not contagious.
All 12 are being treated, and the two adults are no longer infectious, Templeton said.
According to the agency, the medical damage was done before March 8, when a doctor reported the janitor’s case as required by state law. By that time, his case had become very advanced.
Children usually don’t contract tuberculosis from other children or transmit it themselves, according to the American Lung Association.
“An important point is DHEC’s actions after March 8 didn’t affect who got sick; it’s not an excuse but it’s important to note no one got sick after March 8,” Templeton said.
Cobb is skeptical about that claim. The second adult wasn’t identified as infectious until early June, so where’s the proof that employee didn’t spread the disease, she asked.
“The threat of the disease remained present until the end of the school year,” she said.
She said the entire school should have been tested after the results of eight of 12 employees tested over spring break came back positive.
“You can’t beat common sense,” quipped Senate Majority Leader Harvey Peeler, R-Gaffney, the committee’s chairman.
She said when agency employees told her they tested two teachers whose classroom shared an air vent with the janitor’s space, but not the kids in the classroom — without any clinical reason — “I lost all confidence in that investigation.”
As a mother with elementary-age children, whose grandfather died of tuberculosis and grandmother also contracted the disease, she said, “I have the same indignation.”
Senators questioned why Templeton didn’t know about it sooner, continually questioning her about emails dating to mid-April whose recipients included her public health director. Templeton said she knew there was an outbreak in Greenwood County involving a school, but she didn’t know there was a problem with the investigation until she made an unannounced visit to the local health department on May 21, and an employee there made her aware.
Templeton and other officials assured parents the school is safe for students to return when classes resume in 10 days.
The agency is offering to re-test all the children Saturday, and officials will be on hand to answer any questions, Templeton said. She offered to eat in the cafeteria on the first day of school to assure parents it’s safe.
Superintendent Mark Peterson said he too remains frustrated with a communication breakdown, noting he didn’t know about Saturday’s event.
“Throughout this process, I’ve repeatedly asked for information from DHEC,” he told senators. “As soon as we’ve been given information by DHEC, we’ve shared it.”