The director of South Carolina’s public health agency warns its laboratories are “functionally obsolete” and need to be upgraded soon in order to keep pace with emerging disease threats.
Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) director Catherine Heigel made the comments last week while testifying before a state House Legislative Oversight Committee hearing. “We have facilities that are well beyond their useful life,” she said during her update. “And we need to make investments in that.”
A 2016 assessment of the agency’s Bureau of Laboratories labs by the Association of Public Health Laboratories stated that the lab “has exceeded its useful life for testing capacity and safety.”
Documents previously submitted to the committee mention issues with air conditioning, humidity control, steam generation and water lines. DHEC officials worry pipe-related failures could compromise the quality of lab results in the future. For instance, a recent waterline break that occurred at the laboratory nearly destroyed $200,000 worth of equipment and almost jeopardized the state’s only lab devoted to rabies testing.
The documents also say the labs are unable to add additional equipment that’s recommended by the federal government for use in health screening for newborn infants due to a lack of space or new equipment. The agency is considering alternative sites for future testing, according to the report.
Heigel told the panel the labs may be one of DHEC’s most important functions, since they help confirm diseases like the flu, Zika and food-borne illnesses. “If you ask me what keeps me up at night, this is it,” she said of the agency’s responsibilities in disease control. “Because this is life and death. This is the difference between one person being sick and 50.”
The Legislative Oversight Committee periodically reviews state agencies to investigate any potential needs or shortcomings. DHEC is one of seven agencies the House panel flagged for review this past year.