TALLAHASSEE -- Some angry lawmakers want Gov. Rick Scott to create a panel to investigate a tuberculosis outbreak after learning that state officials kept mum about the epidemic even as the legislature was debating closing Florida’s only TB hospital in Lantana.
But the House and Senate sponsors of a Department of Health reorganization that included the closure of A.G. Holley Hospital said state health officials did exactly what they should have. The outbreak, they said, did not justify keeping the aging facility open.
State Rep. Mack Bernard, a Democrat from West Palm Beach who supported the measure this spring, said he would have voted against it had he known about the outbreak of a virulent TB strain first found in an assisted-living facility and later spread through homeless shelters in Jacksonville.
“It is outrageous that they would hide that information or not give that information to us before we voted,” said Bernard, who is running for the Senate district where A.G. Holley is located.
The outbreak in Jacksonville, linked to 13 deaths and 99 illnesses, is the nation’s worst epidemic of the airborne disease in the past two decades, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 3,000 people may have had close contact within the past two years with contagious people at Jacksonville’s homeless shelters, area jails and a mental health clinic. So far, only 253 people have been found and evaluated for TB infection.
State and local health department officials called the CDC for help in 2009 after a spike in TB cases in Jacksonville. The total number of TB cases in the region declined after that, but state officials sought aid from the CDC again in February after an increase in cases of a particular strain called FL 046.
Even as the state sought help from the CDC, closing down A.G Holley Hospital — a priority for the GOP-dominated legislature for years — was the topic of intense debate during committee meetings and on the chambers’ floors. But the outbreak was never mentioned.
Bernard said he will ask Scott to set up a panel to look into the epidemic and to find out if there are TB clusters elsewhere in the state.
“We need to do whatever’s necessary,” he said. “We don’t know what other information that we don’t know.”
Sen. Maria Sachs, a Delray Beach Democrat running against Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff in a Palm Beach-Broward County district near the hospital, called closing the hospital “egregious and reckless.”
In a letter to Scott sent Tuesday, Sachs asked the governor to create a panel to “review the efficacy of closing this important facility at this time.”
And she rebuked state officials for failing to tell lawmakers about the Jacksonville epidemic.
“In the interest of transparency in government, it is absolutely essential that all information be available to legislators and considered by them before a vote,” she wrote.
Scott needs to act immediately, Sachs said Tuesday.
“The first thing he needs to do is empanel an independent group. The second thing is to turn the air conditioning back on at A.G. Holley in case we need it,” she said.
Last year, Duval County sent 11 patients to A.G. Holley under court order. With A.G. Holley now closed, one was sent to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami instead of the nearby Shands hospital. Others remaining in Jacksonville are being placed in motels to make it easier for public health nurses to keep tabs on them, Duval County officials said.