Ten more people have tested positive for exposure to tuberculosis in Greenwood County, according to new data from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. That brings to 73 the total number of infected students and staffers at Ninety Six Primary School.
Five lawsuits have now been filed accusing DHEC of negligence in how it handled the tuberculosis outbreak at the Greenwood County school.
Four of the suits also add Greenwood School District 52 as a defendant for not doing enough to prevent an infected Ninety Six Primary School employee (believed to be a janitor) from coming into work with the disease.
“The problem is that because of the way it was mishandled and mismanaged, now you have young children and some staff that have contracted TB,” said Greenwood attorney Jon Newlon, who filed one of the class-action suits on behalf of some parents from the school. His lawsuit does not name the school district as a defendant.
Newlon’s suit alleges that DHEC was notified about the employee having the disease in early March, but officials did not actively try to quarantine that employee for nearly two months. The employee was forcibly detained by DHEC last week after the agency said the janitor refused to cooperate.
73 students and staff have tested positive for contact with TB in the outbreak, according to the latest DHEC figures. 12 have had abnormal X-rays, meaning the disease is active inside their bodies.
A DHEC spokesman did not return a request for comment Tuesday. But agency officials have previously said the “damage was already done” by the time they found out about the infected employees.
Newlon says he has learned that the infected employee blamed for the outbreak (believed to be a janitor at the school) was sick in February. He said the employee’s physician notified the agency about the possible tuberculosis in early March.
“They did nothing. They sat on it,” Newlon said. “When the guy was identified to them, right then and there they should have immediately taken steps to make sure he was removed from the workplace.”
DHEC notified the Greenwood County School District 52 board on March 27, while the Ninety Six Primary School faculty and staff were notified in April.
However, Newlon claims DHEC did not begin acting until well after it learned May 1 that the employee’s TB had become infectious. The school district did not notify parents about the potential infection until May 28.
A day later, agency staffers told parents in a public meeting that the agency would not provide free TB skin tests for K-4 students, special needs students, or some staff. On May 30, DHEC director Catherine Templeton terminated two agency staffers and disciplined several others, saying they had not moved fast enough in handling the case.
DHEC began offering the tests for all students and staff at the school the following week.
There is a dispute between the agency and Greenwood 52 officials about whether or not the school district could have alerted parents to the potential danger earlier. Superintendent Mark Peterson maintains he was not told about the danger until late May.
Templeton has previously said that school district officials were well aware of what was happening and that they had the option to notify parents.
Newlon says he is filing the lawsuit to “call these people to the carpet and to make sure this never happens again.” He says he is primarily seeking an injunction from a court ordering DHEC to follow federal guidelines in the future.