2 lawsuits filed against DHEC in wake of TB outbreak - FOX Carolina 21

2 lawsuits filed against DHEC in wake of TB outbreak

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NINETY SIX, SC (FOX Carolina) -

Two lawsuits have been filed against state health officials in the wake of a tuberculosis outbreak in Greenwood County.

One of the suits is a class action case. It was filed by Attorney Bill Garrett Jr. against the Department of Health and Environmental Control and Greenwood County School District 52, saying both agencies were negligent.

Officials have been investigating the original case of an employee at Ninety Six Primary School who has TB disease. FOX Carolina obtained an unredacted copy of the emergency public health order that was issued against the patient on Thursday, requiring him to be confined and treated at a state health facility in Columbia. In the unredacted order, the patient was identified as Willie Spearman, who is named as a janitor on the school's website.

FOX Carolina spoke to neighbors at Spearman's Greenwood home who said law enforcement nurses were coming in and out on Thursday. According to the unredacted order, DHEC staff explained to Spearman multiple times how TB is spread. The order said test results on May 31 showed he remained infectious.

The order also asked for the names of all people who Spearman came in contact with during the months of July 2012 to June 2013 and any other time period DHEC determines he was infectious. Spearman has not been criminally charged and the matter is not being sent to the Attorney General's Office, according to DHEC.

DHEC has said Spearman spread TB at the school. Following the administration of skin tests to 591 people, 63 staff and students at the school tested positive for the infection and 11 showed abnormal chest X-ray readings. DHEC has said that of the 11, one other adult besides Spearman has the contagious disease and 10 children have the disease but are not contagious.

Since news of the exposure and spread of TB at Ninety Six broke on May 28, many have been left wondering how long students and staff were exposed to TB and what authorities knew - and when.

Plaintiffs claim DHEC, District 52 negligent

According to Garrett, his case is looking into information that health officials knew Spearman had TB disease as early as June 2012. The emergency public health order obtained by FOX Carolina asks Spearman for the names of people he was in contact with as far back dating back to July 2012.

In the other lawsuit, three parents of children younger than 14 said DHEC was negligent and reckless in handling the outbreak and claim they were unnecessarily exposed to the disease.

In both suits, the plaintiffs said they want actual and punitive damages. Garrett said though the state is legally limited to paying $300,000 per occurrence, he believes each infection is an occurrence.

DHEC responds to lawsuits, handling of TB outbreak

In the wake of the lawsuits, DHEC spokesperson Mark Plowden told FOX Carolina, "This lawsuit is a distraction from the real work being done around the clock by DHEC medical professionals to protect this community. It does nothing to help the effort, and is a waste of time."

DHEC Director Catherine Templeton released further statements on Friday, saying the state has continued to investigate the outbreak, but they are not to blame for the disease itself.

"DHEC instructed the index case not to return to the school immediately upon receiving the report on March 8," Templeton said in a release sent to the media on Friday. "Blaming DHEC for TB is like blaming a policeman for a car accident. We are here to determine what happened and help straighten out the mess."

Additionally, DHEC's infectious disease specialist Dr. Richard Ervin said people were infected at the school by March 8.

"The damage was done before the case was even referred to DHEC," Ervin said in the release.

Following March 8, DHEC said they began testing some employees and said the school staff was notified.

"Staff reports the school was told in March," said Templeton. "In addition, the school staff was heavily involved in the investigation and was being tested. I'm not sure how the superintendent/acting principal missed it."

She said DHEC asked the school to notify parents and printed the materials that went home over Memorial Day weekend.

District 52 responds to initial lawsuit, outbreak

During District 52's regularly scheduled board meeting on Thursday, they addressed the initial lawsuit, the outbreak and their response to it.

Superintendent Mark Peterson and school board member Dr. Michael Bryant took the lead in explaining why news of a possible case of TB was delayed. They said they didn't want to cause panic before anything was confirmed. They said the staff member suspected of having of TB was removed from the building, but that they were waiting for DHEC to let them know if there was a true TB threat.

Peterson and the board said they were trusting DHEC to make the call. He explained that on March 27, he got a call from a DHEC employee about a possible contagious disease at Ninety Six Primary School.

He said a day later, DHEC toured the school and said some people were possibly exposed. Then on April 8, DHEC said several people had been tested, but no TB tests were positive, according to the board.

Peterson said he was in touch with DHEC on the investigation and whether anything could be shared with the school community. He said he was told there were no confirmed cases of TB.

On May 27, Peterson and the school board got the first notification from DHEC of a confirmed case of TB involving an employee at the school. The next day information was sent to parents.

The superintendent said he was following DHEC's lead. DHEC and Templeton did say their regional office bungled the investigation and they fired those they said failed to their job.

"I should've been more aggressive with DHEC from the beginning, relying on them to drive where we go. I should've been camped on their doorstep," said Peterson.

Following Thursday's meeting, the district said they cannot speak further about the outbreak because of the pending litigation.

Temporary restraining order filed against DHEC

Additionally, Garrett said he also filed a restraining order to force DHEC offices to remain open on the weekend to offer treatment, but according to DHEC, that was not going to happen because a judge had not yet ruled on it, as of Friday afternoon.

Garrett notified FOX Carolina on Saturday that the restraining order was authorized, requiring DHEC to keep the Greenwood County Health Department open on Saturdays and Sundays to offer the prescribed treatment for children who tested positive for TB. A hearing regarding the temporary restraining order will be held later in June, according to Garrett.

More on TB infection vs. disease

DHEC officials have repeatedly said that anyone who tested positive for the TB infection following skin tests are not contagious, only those with the disease are.

While TB is airborne, health officials said people can only get if from someone with a contagious version of the disease and must spend an extended period of time with that person.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, TB is spread through the air from one person to another when a person with TB disease (not the infection) coughs, sneezes, speaks or sings. People nearby may breathe in these bacteria and become infected.

However, the CDC said TB is not spread by shaking someone's hand, sharing food or drink, touching bed linens or toilet seats, sharing toothbrushes or kissing.

DHEC has set up a special website for information about TB, which can be found by clicking here.

DHEC said anyone concerned about being exposed to TB should contact their primary care provider or call the Greenwood County Health Department at 864-942-3600. He said those patients will be charged for a test.

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