Officials with the Richmond County Health Department acknowledged Thursday that public health employees improperly denied requests for information and attempted to bar photographs during a public meeting about tuberculosis-testing procedures at Hephzibah High School.
Reporters and photographers from The Augusta Chronicle and local television stations were admonished not to shoot video, take photographs or ask questions during Wednesday’s meeting, which was held to inform the public about possible exposure to TB bacteria at the school.
Tammy Burdeaux, District Nursing and Clinical Director with the East Central Health District, said the meeting was assembled to inform everyone about the ongoing TB testing and the media was meant to attend.
“It was an informational meeting. I made sure the media was invited,” Burdeaux said. “The person who ended up giving the presentation was not experienced with talking to media. We apologize for that.”
Yumuriel Whitaker, the Richmond County TB nurse leading Wednesday’s presentation, said that a small group of people at the high school who came in close, prolonged contact with the person showing symptoms would be tested Monday to see if the disease had spread.
Whitaker stopped her presentation when an Augusta Chronicle photographer began to take pictures, refusing to continue until the photographer stopped and moved to the back of the room. Even then, the photographer was blocked from taking pictures by a person identified as a teacher by members of the assembly.
Deputy Superintendent Tim Spivey said Thursday he would contact the school’s principal about whether a teacher had been involved. Thursday night, he said he had not heard back from the principal.
Reporters from local television stations were also prevented from filming the meeting. After the presentation, public health employees refused to answer questions or give their names to reporters.
Burdeaux said that traumatic experiences with TV reporters and photographers in the past probably contributed to the reaction of the public health employees to media requests.
“They’ve had bad experiences before with reporters,” Burdeaux said. “Some of them came to our TB clinics uninvited. When they were asked to leave, they stalked our patients in the parking lot. They’ve seen things like that before. If you think about that, it’s understandable why they would be afraid of what could happen.”
Larry Walker, Public Relations Information Coordinator for East Central Health District, said the confusion during the meeting was definitely an “isolated incident” and that he wished he had done more to inform media personnel during the meeting that he could have answered their questions.
“I did not know that Augusta Chronicle reporters were in the meeting till later,” Walker said. “By the time I tried to find them, it was already too late and the meeting was over. This is not how we want things to happen. I take the blame on that.”
Ultimately, both Burdeaux and Walker said they would make sure information will be provided to both media and the public in an open manner.
Staff Writer Sean Gruber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org