December 22, 2014

Report: SC slightly above average in infectious disease efforts

Digitally-colorized image of a small grouping of H1N1 influenza virus particles. (Courtesy: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

Digitally-colorized image of a small grouping of H1N1 influenza virus particles. (Courtesy: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases)

A new report on infectious disease prevention found South Carolina in the upper half among states for handling and preventing virus outbreaks.

But the report by the nonprofit health promotion group Trust for America’s Health (TFAH) did say there were many areas where the state could improve.

The report did not rank states individually, but instead scored each by how they performed in 10 key indicators. South Carolina met 6 of those indicators, putting it slightly above average. The Palmetto State scored high in increasing public funding, preparations for public health emergencies, more than 90 percent of infants receiving the hepatitis B vaccination, and for reducing central line-associated blood stream infections among hospital patients.

But Trust for America’s Health spokesman Albert Lang said South Carolina still needs to improve in some areas, such as lowering what is still a relatively high rate of hospital-acquired infections. “South Carolina showed improvement, but they’re still below the national average of incident rates,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “While it’s great they’re improving, they still have a ways to go.” He said 1 out of every 25 people on average contract an infection during their stay in a hospital.

Lang said South Carolina also lags behind the national average in vaccinations among its adults, especially for the flu. The report noted more than a third of seniors nationwide and a majority of adults have not gotten all of the recommended shots. In South Carolina, the flu vaccination rate is 44 percent.

“A state education campaign could be really helpful in making sure that people are aware that the flu vaccine is completely safe and protects the most vulnerable in our population,” Lang said. “(Those are) the young people who haven’t built up an immunity and the old people who have compromised immune systems.”

The report’s authors warned that many states are still unprepared for a massive outbreak. For instance, TFAH executive director Jeffrey Levi noted that hospitals nationwide appeared unprepared to handle Ebola cases that appeared on American shores for the first time in 2014. “Over the last decade, we have seen dramatic improvements in state and local capacity to respond to outbreaks and emergencies. But we also saw during the recent Ebola outbreak that some of the most basic infectious disease control policies failed when tested,” he said in a statement. “The Ebola outbreak is a reminder that we cannot afford to let our guard down. We must remain vigilant in preventing and controlling emerging threats – like MERS-CoV, pandemic flu and Enterovirus – but not at the expense of ongoing, highly disruptive and dangerous diseases – seasonal flu, HIV/AIDS, antibiotic resistance and healthcare-associated infections.”

South Carolina only met 5 of 10 indicators in TFAH’s 2013 report, but the organization also used different criteria last year.

Federal investigators stop firing of Charleston TSA inspector

Charleston airport

Charleston International Airport (Image: Charleston County Aviation Authority)

Federal investigators have blocked the firing of a dog handler at Charleston International Airport after she claimed she was removed for whistleblowing.

The Office of Special Counsel (OSC), which investigates and prosecutes wrongdoing by federal employees, said it had obtained an order blocking the removal of Kimberly Barnett. Barnett was an inspector who handled explosive detection dogs for the Transportation Security Administration at the Charleston airport.

According to the announcement, Barnett claimed she was fired on November 26 after a chain of events that began a year earlier when she reported safety violations by a supervisor. The OSC noted that Barnett said her supervisor inaccurately recorded the amount of time that he trained and used his dog to make it appear he was meeting TSA requirements. Barnett said a TSA manager told her she was throwing her supervisor “under the bus,” and did not act on her complaints. She then reported the alleged misconduct in June.

Shortly after that, she was involved in a minor car accident when a bus hit her parked car. The TSA supervisors proposed to fire Barnett in October for her role in the crash and cursing while reporting it to her superiors. Barnett insists she does not remember swearing during the phone call and has never been disciplined during her 12-year career. She was terminated a month later.

OSC officials asked the Merit Systems Protection Board to postpone Barnett’s firing while it investigated Barnett’s case as a possible whistleblower who suffered retaliation. The board agreed on Tuesday.

“I find that there are reasonable grounds to believe that TSA proposed Ms. Barnett’s removal based on her protected disclosure” in retaliation for making disclosures of wrongdoing,” board member Mark Robbins wrote.

Jay Harper contributed to this report

Judge rules 14-year-old should not have been executed 70 years ago

George Stinney Jr. was electrocuted in 1944. (Credit: albany.edu)

George Stinney Jr. was electrocuted in 1944. (Credit: albany.edu)

A South Carolina circuit judge has overturned the 1944 murder conviction of a 14-year-old Clarendon County boy, saying the African-American teen’s arrest, conviction, and execution were done so quickly that it violated his due process rights.

George Stinney was executed less than three months after his arrest and subsequent conviction for the murder of two white girls, ages 7 and 11. The case got renewed attention last year after Stinney’s family and other supporters sought to clear his name through the South Carolina court system, believing that the teen was a victim of “Jim Crow”-era laws and prejudices.

In her ruling Wednesday, Circuit Judge Carmen Mullen ruled Stinney’s rights were violated, “Given the particularized circumstances of Stinney’s case, I find by a preponderance of the evidence standard, that a violation of the Defendant’s procedural due process rights tainted his prosecution.”

Third Circuit Solicitor Ernest “Chip” Finney (ironically, the son of South Carolina’s first black Supreme Court chief justice) had argued for the state. Finney said not enough evidence has survived to justify reopening the case seven decades later. While he agreed during court proceedings in January that Stinney should not have been executed, Finney argued the court followed state law at the time.

An attorney representing the Stinney family claimed there was not enough evidence to find the teen guilty and that law enforcement coerced him into confessing to the crimes.

Reports from witnesses at the time suggest that no physical evidence was presented during the three-hour trial beyond a witness who saw Stinney speaking with the girls before their deaths. Two officers testified that Stinney had confessed, but no written document was ever submitted to the court. No witnesses were called by a public defender who led Stinney’s defense. An all-white jury (blacks could not serve at the time) convicted Stinney within minutes. His family was not in attendance, later saying they had been threatened and forced to leave town. His attorney did not appeal the death penalty.

Stinney died in an electric chair within 85 days of his arrest. He was the youngest person ever executed in the United States during the 20th Century.

Three contractors heading to prison for fraud at Shaw Air Base

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U.S. Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Kenny Holston/Released

Three contractors who worked on construction jobs at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter admitted defrauding the federal government on Tuesday.

60-year-old James Clemens of Johnston, 64-year-old Larry Baker of Cameron, and North Carolina native Steven Crandell all pleaded guilty in federal court in Columbia, according to a release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The three men were accused of inflating their construction costs by submitting false statements for worker hours and materials for work at the base. Those false statements resulted in the men being overpaid by roughly $1.4 million, according to prosecutors. The three must repay that amount, while each was sentenced to time in prison.

Prosecutors said Clemens worked for government contractor APM LLC, which handled all construction projects under $750,000 at the base. Baker and Crandell were subcontractors who split the overpayments between them, according to the Department of Defense’s Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS).

“These conspirators took funds away from the warfighter,” John Khin, the DCIS Southeast Field Office Special Agent in Charge, said in a statement.

Clemens received a sentence of 48 months of in prison, Baker received a sentence of 15 months and Crandall was sentenced to 5 months.

“Mr. Clemens guilty plea is significant in sending a message that while fraud involving government contracts may be initially lucrative, nothing lasts forever and the consequences are serious. We and our law enforcement partners will work continuously to uncover this type of criminal activity,” Thomas Holloman III, Special Agent in Charge for IRS Criminal Investigation, said in a statement.

Ex-firefighters accused in a string of Yemassee arsons

Law-gavelTwo men charged with starting a fire at the Yemassee fire station last month are now accused of arson in other area blazes.

The State Law Enforcement Division said Tuesday that 22-year-old Christopher Williams was charged with two counts of 3rd-degree arson and three counts of criminal conspiracy, while 21-year-old Dominique Thompson was charged with two counts of 3rd-degree arson and criminal conspiracy and one count of 3rd-degree burglary.

Both men are former volunteers with the Yemassee Fire Department and Sheldon Fire District. The two were already accused of attempted murder after they started a fire at the Yemassee fire station and town hall on November 18. 18-year-old Deandre Griffin and a town clerk were inside at the time, but both were able to escape.

Griffin later admitted to investigators that he had helped Williams and Thompson start fires at other locations in Hampton County.

Williams is accused of setting a fire at a mobile home south of the Yemassee town limits. According to SLED warrants, Williams admitted entering the mobile home without consent and using a lighter and gasoline to set the blaze. The warrants accuse Thompson of driving Williams to and from the mobile home, as well as to a gas station to buy the gasoline used to start the fire.

Yemassee Police Captain Gregory Alexander told the Hilton Head Island Packet that he believes the men wanted the thrill of responding to a call.

Investigators have not said which other fires the trio are suspected of starting. Griffin was also linked to the mobile home blaze and to a Family Dollar store fire in September.