CHATHAM COUNTY, GA (WTOC) - The latest cases of tuberculosis at the Chatham County jail stem from an inmate diagnosed with Active Tuberculosis back in April.
The Chatham County Health Department, along with the Chatham County Sheriff's Office, started looking for those who may have come in contact with that inmate. When they found two more active tuberculosis cases last month, they called in the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta to help out.
"The CDC, State Public Health, and the Health Department has been working now really closely with the jail administration over these past couple of weeks to develop a strategy to provide a much more intense screening and evaluation process," explained Chatham County Health Department Chief Medical Officer Dr. Diane Weems.
The total number of inmates infected with TB currently stands at 10. The Chatham County Health Department, and the CDC, have created a list of people who may have come in contact with those infected inmates. That list includes all employees, volunteers and contract workers within the jail.
There are more than 1,900 inmates at the Chatham County Detention Center. So when that one case of TB suddenly became 10 last month, Sheriff Al St Lawrence and Dr. Weems, knew they had a big problem. "You look at a jail facility, and you have inmates in confined quarters, in close contact for days and days. That's a high risk setting," Dr. Weems explained.
The health department immediately screened all inmates, including some who have already been released from the jail. "Basically we've developed a list of those individuals who we continue to look for," said Weems. "A lot of those individuals really come in and out of this system. We're also working with the homeless shelters, where some of these other people are in and out of."
"Most of them probably know already whether they've tested positive or not," explained Sheriff St Lawrence.
He believes much of the problem is due to overcrowding at the jail. "I've got 1,524 beds. And and I've got 1,940 inmates in here as of Tuesday morning. So that doesn't help us any," the sheriff added.
But St Lawrence said the TB problem could have been worse. "You're looking at 1,940 inmates, and the small number of cases that we have is a concern to us, but it's not like we've got 200 or 300 in here that have it," he said.
St Lawrence said that when the jail is expanded, there will be a medical unit to treat inmates with diseases like TB, and keep them isolated from the general population.
So far, none of the employees at the jail have tested positive.
Tuberculosis is a pulmonary disease, that affects the lungs. Active TB is contagious. The TB bacteria is spread by coughing, sneezing or even singing. People then breathe in those water droplets from the air.
Weems said people have to be in close quarters with someone for a prolonged amount of time to become infected. In other words, peole can't get it just passing each other on the street.
Sheriff St Lawrence told WTOC The Chatham County Detention Center does screen inmates before they come into the jail. But as Weems explained, the TB germ could be dormant. So the inmate would test negative walking in the door of the jail, only to have it become an active, contagious case later on.
To screen for Tuberculosis, nurses inject patients with a small derivative of TB beneath the skin, usually in a person's forearm. Health officials then wait three days, before looking for a reaction, which is usually a bump, more than 3 centimeters high.