Tallahassee, Florida - A stubborn and deadly outbreak of tuberculosis in the Jacksonville area is prompting Florida to team up with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to battle the disease, but state health officials insist the situation is under control.
The TB outbreak is linked to 13 deaths and nearly 100 illnesses since 2004, mainly among homeless people. It's estimated about 3,000 people have been exposed to the contagious disease but that information was never released to the media.
Now state and federal health workers are trying to track down as many of those people as possible to check for symptoms of TB, including cough, fever, sweats and weight loss.
Florida asked the CDC for help with the TB cluster in February but not because the situation was out of control, according to Dr. Steven Harris of the state Department of Health.
Harris calls it business as usual. He says the cluster of TB cases did not warrant a public warning because it was not a public health hazard.
"We normally do not advertise the fact that we're doing investigations, number one, to protect people whose identity should not be disclosed and, number two, we only identify an investigation when there's a need to get help perhaps from the media to identify people who may have come into contact with a contagious organism."
Dr. Harris says Florida does have the resources to reach out to those potentially exposed to tuberculosis with federal, state and local governments contributing to the effort.
He emphasizes the strain of TB in Duval County, FL 046, is not a drug-resistant strain and is very treatable.
The ongoing outbreak has coincided with the shutdown of Florida's only TB hospital - A.G. Holley in Lantana. The hospital closed last week after state lawmakers passed and Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation eliminating funding for the facility.
Critics say the TB outbreak highlights the need for A.G. Holley. Former Department of Health employee Dr. Paul Arons believes the hospital should have been kept for the long term.
Dr. Arons says Florida continues to cut health care spending and that jeopardizes the state's ability to be ready for any public health emergency.
"This is a wakeup call. I hope people in positions to make policy do something about increasing the funding and retaining personnel will take heed."
Dr. Harris counters that A.G. Holley had become too expensive to operate, about $10 million annually, for the small number of patients it treated.
"We're in an era of declining revenues in the state general revenue and local budgets. We're spending a lot of money every year to run a hospital that's treating actually a very small number of patients with TB and in fact less than 10 percent of the state's cases are managed at A.G. Holley."
Harris says other hospitals across the state are well prepared to handle any cases of tuberculosis and critics should not second guess the closing of A.G. Holley based on the TB outbreak in Jacksonville.