HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - The state Department of Health and Environmental Control is working closely with administrators at Carolina Forest High School to ensure anyone at risk of tuberculosis is tested.
A group of five DHEC experts visited with families Friday morning to educate them on TB and the testing process, one day after the health organization confirmed there was a case of the disease at the school.
DHEC is not testing all of Carolina Forest High's student and administrative body because the entire school is not affected. Instead, officials will provide free blood testing to those identified as at risk and encourage anyone else who is concerned to contact their family healthcare provider.
TB is treatable and if someone tests positive it doesn't mean the person can't go to school or is contagious.
"Once we're infected we are infected for the rest of our lives," said Dr. Richard Ervin, the South Carolina tuberculosis physician consultant. "Fortunately, only about 10 percent of folks who have infection come down with the disease. We don't take any chances however. Any of those who are identified as being possibly recently infected, we will offer treatment to them to help prevent them from ever coming down with disease in the future."
TB is a very slow moving and slowly contagious respiratory tract airborne infection. In comparison to other infections or viruses like the flu, Ervin said the TB germ takes a day or two to come on as an infection and then takes six to eight weeks for the immune system to recognize it.
"This is a disease that is airborne through the air and it takes a long period of time for an individual, when they are exposed, for them to actually have the risk for infection," Ervin said. "So it's only those individuals who are around the case that we know for a long period of time in a relatively closed environment who are at risk. You aren't going to get it walking through the hallway and the individual was walking the other direction."
The DHEC team has conducted a contact investigation at Carolina Forest High using very specific and scientific methods to determine which students or staff are at highest risk.
Ervin said the team has moved at lightning speed.
"The entire administrative and health care team was pulled together in a matter of hours, letters of information went out to all those who are going to be tested yesterday through email contact, and posted on the DHEC website," he said. "All this has been in less than 96 hours. I must admit I am proud of everyone."
All Carolina Forest High School students and staff were notified Thursday.
During the contact investigation, the person who has TB must think back to the last two to three months, according to Ervin.
"We analyze and ask questions again and again and again. Can you remember where you were around? Was anybody in extended family perhaps staying the night? Who were you around?" he said. "As well as extended family, friends, they begin to remember this person was around for a while and test anyone at risk whatsoever."
The blood test, compared to a skin test, is more specific for the TB germ and is only needed one time.
"Let's say one of the students was having lunch with this individual for an hour," Ervin said. "We are going to treat that one the same way as we would someone who has been in the same classroom or whatever room for a longer period of time."
Linda Johnson, the Pee Dee regional health director for DHEC, talked about why testing is scheduled for Monday.
"We did the right thing and identified the right population, grabbed our resources for test kits, notified our bureau of public health laboratories about the need for being able to process this volume of lab tests coming in on a daily basis, and bring in resources from other public health regions to assist us with screenings and lab draws," Johnson said.
Lisa Bourcier, Horry County Schools spokesperson, said district staff are comfortable and worked together very quickly with DHEC to identify the right population.
"During the Q & A, and as the doctors started to explain things, you saw it click not only with the students but the parents too, and I think they really felt at ease at the end of it that it's not the end of the world and is something extremely treatable, although uncommon, something we need to be concerned with," Bourcier said.
If a test comes back positive, the person will be notified and all formal results will be returned on April 11 after spring break. DHEC will return eight weeks before summer vacation to do follow-up testing. For updates on the fluid investigation at Carolina Forest High, click here.