The Richmond County Health Department will begin testing students at Hephzibah High School for tuberculosis exposure next week after one student showed symptoms of the disease to a family physician.
All students, faculty and bus drivers who had direct contact with the student will receive free skin tests Monday, and the health department will return to read results on Wednesday, said Carol Rountree, assistant superintendent for student services.
Concerned parents, school employees and students packed the Hephzibah High School gym for more information during a public meeting Wednesday night, but many did not receive the answers they were expecting.
A woman who would only identify herself as an official with the Richmond County Health Department gave a presentation to the assembly but refused to be photographed, filmed or give her name to reporters.
She said that only a small circle of individuals at the high school who came in close, prolonged contact with the student showing symptoms of TB would be tested to see if the disease has spread. Even if they test negative for exposure to TB, they will be retested in 8-10 weeks to ensure they remain uninfected.
The official stressed there was no need to test the entire school population for TB because the disease is only spread through “prolonged contact” with infected individuals, and that not all people who come in contact with TB bacteria will become actively infected.
“I don’t want anyone to leave this meeting in fear,” she said. “This is a different situation than what happened in other schools in the past. Around 14percent of individuals in the Augusta area will test positive on a TB skin test. If we did the test to everyone here, it would skew our numbers and prevent us from finding potential active infections capable of being spread. We need to see if this strain has spread, and then we can move forward.”
The public health official suggested that parents concerned about whether their children were exposed could visit RCHD medical facilities for TB testing.
Hephzibah High School Principal Walter Reeves also stressed the need for calm, saying the school was following the proper procedure for handling the situation.
“Everything the Health Department said tonight is correct,” Reeves said. “We are cooperating with the department and making sure this gets done correctly. The procedure for handling this is in place. They have done this before, and if we follow the process everything will be done effectively.”
But some members of the public said the RCDH wasn’t doing enough, angrily demanding the entire school population be tested during the presentation. Many crowded around the public health official after the presentation, asking follow up questions and voicing their concerns.
Blythe resident Cindy Piper felt that the RCDH “dodged questions” during the presentation. “They never give straight answers,” Piper said. “That’s the health department for you.”
Hephzibah High is the fourth school in recent years to undergo testing for suspected tuberculosis.
In October 2012, 578 people at Butler High School were tested for tuberculosis after a student also showed signs of the disease. Of those, 136 tested positive for the bacteria, and three later were confirmed to have the disease.
In September, about 11 people at Glenn Hills High School tested positive for tuberculosis bacteria out of 119 students and faculty initially tested after a student there showed signs of the disease to a doctor. The health department later returned to do two more rounds of tests.
An A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School student tested positive for the bacteria in October during routine TB testing required for clinical study work, but no cases were identified after 240 students and faculty were tested.
Between 2007 and 2010, the most recent period for which data are available, there were 20 confirmed TB cases in Richmond County, five in Columbia County and 919 in the state, according to the Department of Health database.