Beaufort News

SC DHEC's director says agency botched TB probe

The state health department's chief said Monday her agency botched an investigation of tuberculosis in Greenwood County, endangered the public and left people in the dark as an infected man roamed the small community of Ninety Six.

Catherine Templeton, director at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said the department's poor response is why she dismissed key agency staff members who were involved in the disease probe.

All told, more than 100 people in Greenwood County -- including more than 50 young schoolchildren -- have tested positive for germs associated with tuberculosis, a contagious disease that health officials believe was spread by a school janitor. Templeton has fired at least four DHEC workers over their handling of the investigation.

"DHEC screwed this up," Templeton said in an interview with The State. "I'm sort of as indignant and angry about it as anybody else. It's not how I run the railroad. It's why they are fired."

Templeton's remarks, her strongest to date about the investigation, ended weeks of silence from the agency about its handling of the case, which has outraged the parents of schoolchildren in Ninety Six. They're upset the department didn't tell them about the problem in early March after DHEC learned about the infected man -- and why the agency didn't test children until May 31.

State legislators also are asking questions. Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Kershaw, last week called the slow-moving tuberculosis investigation "an inexcusable failure on the part of state government."

Meanwhile, three ex-workers who have sued DHEC say they were wrongly fired and are being made scapegoats by high-level staff members. Former regional health nurses Malinda Martin, Latrinia Richard and Anne Ashley claim they tried to take action to swiftly test schoolchildren and inform the public about the disease threat but were stifled by indifference from officials in Columbia's headquarters offices. They are seeking damages and want their jobs back.

But Templeton said Monday the missteps by DHEC came from the regional staff members and a top-level official in Columbia. She contends that regional staff and the Columbia TB program official didn't see the investigation as urgent, which is why the probe moved so slowly. In addition to Martin, Richard and Ashley, state TB director Shea Rabley also has been fired.

"They all shared this lethargy," Templeton said, noting Monday that the department was preparing to file answers to their lawsuits.

The answers are expected to cite policies DHEC says the staff members violated, including one case where a worker brought the infected school janitor to a DHEC clinic filled with people who could have been exposed, instead of giving him medication at his home. The man has since been confined to a medical facility in Columbia.

Tuberculosis is a contagious but relatively rare disease in the United States. It is typically spread through the air by coughing, singing or even breathing. It causes people to cough or spit up blood, while experiencing chest pain. It can be fatal, but that rarely happens in the United States with treatment.

Templeton -- who since taking over has shaken up an agency that historically would not concede mistakes -- said she didn't learn about problems with the tuberculosis investigation in Greenwood until an unannounced visit to the regional office May 20 and 21. Within a week, she made sure parents were informed of the tuberculosis issue and set up testing for the youngsters, Templeton said. She also noted that children likely were exposed long before the department learned about the infected school worker March 8.

John Reckenbeil, a lawyer representing Martin, Richard and Ashley, said he's glad to hear that Templeton thinks the agency could have done better, but says problems with the investigation were not the fault of his clients.

Templeton "should have known about all this sooner," Reckenbeil said.

"There should be safeguards and procedures for (incidents) like this."

Templeton also said DHEC should have tested some children in March, at the same time it checked teachers who used a room that shared a vent with the infected janitor's work area at Ninety Six Primary School. Eight of 12 people associated with the school were confirmed to have the TB germ in March, but none of them were apparently students.

Templeton said the reason given for not testing children was a flimsy one.

"When asked why these children weren't tested, the response was the teachers were taller," Templeton said, noting that such reasoning isn't enough to exclude children from testing.