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Friday, May 16, 2014

Fulton investigating TB outbreak at three Atlanta homeless shelters

Dr. Patrice Harris says county is working with CDC investigators to screen residents
  • Madeleine Thompson
  • Dr. Patrice Harris says county is working with CDC investigators to screen residents
For the past three years, Fulton County has recorded the fewest cases of tuberculosis in the country . That has changed since January with reports of a recent outbreak among three Atlanta homeless shelters.

According to Fulton Department of Health and Wellness officials, 16 cases have been reported among clients from Central Night Shelter, the Atlanta Union Mission and the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless' facility located at Peachtree and Pine streets.

"All persons with active disease have been relocated from the shelters while they undergo treatment under the supervision of Health and Wellness," said Dr. Patrice Harris, the department director, at a press briefing Thursday morning.

TB is a bacteria that is spread through the air. But Harris stressed that there is "no threat to the public at large," as infection requires breathing air in an enclosed space for at least six hours. It is more likely to be found in people with stressed or weakened immune systems, including the homeless.

Harris said the department, which is working with the Center for Disease Control, has begun screening residents of one of the shelters. It will be "finalizing plans" to screen residents of the other two over the next three weeks.

Britton Clark, media relations manager of the Atlanta Union Mission, declined to comment, but said in an email statement that the shelter is "working with the Fulton County Health Department to ensure that we continue to provide a healthy environment for these men, women, and children."

Katie Bashor, director of the Central Night Shelter, also said that Central Night would be cooperating with the health department and CDC officials in response to the increase in TB cases.

This outbreak marks the third time in eight years that TB has been traced back to Peachtree-Pine. In 2011, county health officials said TB was reported in the Downtown shelter for the second time.

"We didn't know anything until [the Department of Health and Wellness] showed us a report," said Anita Beaty, the task force's executive director, about the most recent reported cases. "We are always concerned about protecting the people who live here and work here."

A 2009 report by the CDC said that the shelter appeared not to have taken previously recommended steps to prevent the spread of TB, like increasing air circulation and investing in bacteria-killing UV lights. Beaty said all of the measures have now been put in place except the UV lighting, which Fulton "accepted responsibility for."

"We've asked if there are other facilities in Atlanta who use that protocol and we haven't found any," Beaty said. "But we asked [for UV lights] more than once."

Beaty said her main concern is "to protect our residents from the panic of hearing ... 'Oh, there's an outbreak and Peachtree-Pine is named.'"

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