Since it was disclosed a few days ago, the worst tuberculosis outbreak in Florida in 20 years has left lots of questions but few answers, and with seemingly conflicting accounts.
The main questions are who knew what, and when, why was the A. G. Holley State Hospital closed six months early in spite of a warning about the outbreak from the CDC, and worse, why was the public kept in the dark?
One of the most pathetic reasons for keeping it quiet I've come across is this one:
A.G. Holley State Hospital in Lantana was, after all, a public institution, and thereby worthy of the sharpest sort of haphazard fiscal scrutiny. And so the state health department didn’t even think it necessary to point out the TB outbreak to state legislators as they axed the hospital in March.
As the state’s deputy health secretary put it, this was basically just an epidemic among homeless men in the Jacksonville area. No reason to inform the general public.
Really? Just an epidemic among the homeless, so keep it quiet? Not only is this a pathetic excuse, but are we to believe that those in the health department who may feel it's no big deal to let the homeless know of the threat, but do they also assume that this is something that couldn't possibly spread beyond "just the homeless" as they put it? That somehow those who aren't merely poor and homeless, or "expendable" to them have no chance of coming in contact with those who are infected? I hope that health officials aren't that naive, uneducated about TB, or just that careless? It's a disease that doesn't discriminate, and it may still be spreading.
One wonders if the governor feels this way too, that the homeless aren't worth the concern? (Although since he's cut off Medicaid and the homeless, it's not exactly a stretch.) Those infected who are now out in the general public could unknowingly infect others.
Perhaps it would be more of a concern to him if, say it dawned on him that there was the possibility that attendees coming to Tampa next month for the Republican National Convention could be exposed? (Republican delegates are no more immune than anyone else in the state. Maybe that will wake him up?) Again, beyond just knowing there's an outbreak, we don't have many answers. Not that the governor is around to answer them in the first place.
Here's the response from the Florida Department of Health:
As soon as the Department of Health (DOH) saw a slight spike in the FL0046 Tuberculosis strain, we immediately reached out to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and engaged stakeholders in the community.
As soon as the CDC site visit was completed, we re-formed The Jacksonville Community Tuberculosis Coalition which enlisted several community partners including the City of Jacksonville, the Mayor’s office, local officials, local hospitals, the Sheriff’s office and homeless shelters. The very purpose of the coalition is to ensure the homeless population is protected, the cluster is contained and the locally affected community is informed of the isolated strain within an isolated population.
Contacting these local government officials, community organizations and hospitals is a clear sign that these actions were conducted with the utmost level of transparency.
Feel better? Me either, and I doubt many of the homeless would find comfort in this statement that they likely would never know about unless they happened to turn up at one of those shelters.
A statement from the governor's communication director:
The secrecy allegation is absurd, and is proven so by the fact that numerous community stakeholders were engaged in the effort to contain the disease. State and county health officials alerted the Jacksonville Community Tuberculosis Coalition which was composed of members from the Mayor’s office, the City of Jacksonville, local officials, local hospitals, the Sheriff’s office and homeless shelters. The very purpose of the coalition was to protect the homeless population, make sure the cluster was contained, and inform the local community that was affected.
Again, really? If the "secrecy allegation is absurd" then why did the public not hear any of this until June? From March until June is a long time, enough for those turned out of the hospital or those not tracked down to be out there in the streets. Absurd? I don't think so. Maybe officials knew, but the general public? Zip.
Then there's the question of leaving the legislature in the dark as they were voting to close the hospital, which was then closed six months early. Senate Democratic leader Nan Rich, who recently announced she will run against Rick Scott in 2014, has asked for an investigation:
“Following the initial news report, I have been reading conflicting accounts as to who knew what and when, and why information about the exposure of up to 3000 individuals was neither shared with lawmakers or the public in general,” Rich wrote.
Following the release of the report, the state Department of Health countered that the outbreak did not rise to the degree of warranting a public health warning, but that local hospitals, the city of Jacksonville and other stakeholders were informed.
Rich said the conflicting information underlined the need for a Senate inquiry.
“The joint committee should be authorized to investigate the outbreak…and why the information was withheld from lawmakers prior to the passage of HB 1263," she said. "I also ask that the panel examine why the shuttering of AG Holley was expedited, whether the closure has resulted in any savings of tax dollars, and how much containment and treatment are expected to cost given the hospital’s closure."
More questions that deserve answers and someone in Tallahassee should be at the wheel, but then this is the kind of thing we've come to expect from our elected officials: Crickets, unless you're a lobbyist, a big donor, or a corporation looking for a tax break.
This isn't a game. Is this really too much to ask from our elected officials?