Lawmakers should seek more info on TB inquiry

info@islandpacket.comAugust 15, 2013 

Likening state senators to kindergartners does not signal a productive Senate committee hearing.

That was the description after a Senate Medical Affairs Committee hearing last week into the state's handling of a tuberculosis investigation, and it was offered by a Greenwood County mother of an 8-year-old child being treated for tuberculosis.

More than 100 people have tested positive for TB bacteria, including 53 schoolchildren, in a case that began with a janitor at a Greenwood County school. Ten children have developed a full case of the disease.

DHEC staff members learned from the janitor's private doctor that he was infected March 8, but parents of children in the school where he worked weren't told about the threat until May 28, and the children weren't tested until May 31.

The hearing devolved into a political spat, the very thing that should not have happened. Catherine Templeton, director of the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, accused Democratic senators at the hearing, which included Clementa Pinckney of Jasper County, of attacking her because she was part of Republican Gov. Nikki Haley's "detail."

Unfortunately, the hearing was not all that informative. It's still not clear what was done wrong, or who should be held responsible if the case wasn't handled appropriately or quickly enough.

Templeton didn't offer any insight into why the four lower-level people no longer have jobs, while their boss, Jamie Shuster, still has hers.

The (Columbia) State newspaper reported that senators seemed reluctant to hold a second hearing in Greenwood on the matter; they said DHEC could do that. But they shouldn't let the matter drop. We would encourage them to continue to try to get specific answers to specific questions from Templeton and others.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed over the firings, and some questions are likely to get answered in court. With more digging, lawmakers could make sure the state's laws and regulations are up to the job of protecting the public's health.

For example, we might see a change in state law in how frequently employees at schools and day care facilities are tested for tuberculosis. Now, people are tested when they are hired, but no follow up testing is required. If it's important to make sure new hires can't infect children with a dangerous disease, then it's important for that to continue to be the case during their tenure at a school or day care.

State Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, who also was at the hearing, raises very good questions about what should be expected of DHEC employees. Do we really expect them to disobey supervisors' orders? That's apparently what was expected of the four who lost their jobs over this TB outbreak.

Davis asked in a column published Wednesday whether the state's whistle-blower law provides adequate protections for state employees.

DHEC also needs to make sure that procedures for quarantining infectious people are adequate. The infected janitor disregarded orders to stay home, and it wasn't until June 6 that DHEC ordered him into quarantine. A second man with a contagious form of tuberculosis left a Columbia hospital Aug. 6, resulting in a frantic search for him. DHEC issued an emergency order to detain the man after learning he had left the hospital where he was being treated. He was found the next day at a Lumberton, N.C., hospital.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said his department wasn't told until late on Aug. 6 to look for the man. Columbia police, not DHEC, notified his office.

"(DHEC) totally botched any official notification," Lott said.

Templeton defended her department's handling of this case, saying, "Swift efforts taken by DHEC resulted in this patient being safely located."

Lott maintains -- rightly, we think -- that an order to detain the man, who had been under treatment at the hospital for months, should have been issued before he walked away, not after.

And it's hard to give DHEC credit for locating the patient, who is thought to be from North Carolina, when he showed up at a Lumberton medical center and asked for help.

Despite accusations of political motivations, lawmakers should keep up the pressure on Templeton and DHEC to do better.

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