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Surgeon General blasts Palm Beach Post article

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

 A war of words has erupted between one of the state's major newspapers and Dr. John H. Armstrong, who is both Florida's Surgeon General and secretary of the Department of Health.

Ina statement sent to the mediavia e-mail Wednesday afternoon, Armstrong called an article about an outbreakof tuberculosis that appeared in the Palm Beach Post this week inaccurate, misleading and "reckless." The headline on the article by Post reporter Stacey Singer was "Worst TB outbreak in 20 years kept secret."

"I am disappointed that after a personal and in-depth discussion with Ms. Singer ...., the Palm Beach Post made a reckless choice to misinform you by reporting on a cluster of TB patients that posed no public health risk and positioning this as a secret," Armstrong wrote.

Armstrong said state DOH officials and Duval County Health Department worked openly on the matter, calling in a team from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and keeping community leaders informed.

He said state and local health officials followed CDC protocols all the way and were motivated by nothing other than public safety.

The Post article had suggested DOH downplayed the outbreak to preserve the governor and legislative leaders' political agenda: shrinking the agency and closing AG Holley, the longtime TB hospital in Lantana.

Armstrong took particular exception to the article's suggestion that the infection may have spread beyond Duval County and that the general population is at risk. He explained that TB is not usually transmitted through brief contract and that most of those exposed do not develop active infection.

"The people of Florida weren’t provided accurate medical details on TB to properly understand their risk and as medical experts, we are the authority in this matter," Armstrong wrote.

Some questions that Health News Florida has sent to DOH this week about the TB outbreak were not addressed in his statement or by anyone else at DOH.

They include: How many of the 3,000-plus individuals who were identified as having had contact with those infected have been found and screened? As of the date of the CDC report, fewer than 10 percent had been evaluated.

Also: Where are the patients who are contagious and who would have been at Holley if it were open now being housed and treated? Armstrong's statement didn't say. (Editor's note: As originally published, this paragraph contained an error in a description of a passage of the Post article. It has been removed.)

Singer's article was based in part on a letter and 25-page reportby a CDC official who called the multi-year outbreak the worst he'd seen in a 20-year career in TB epidemiology. Since the cluster's particular strain of TB was identified in a homeless schizophrenia patient in 2008, the report said, it was implicated in 99 illnesses and 13 deaths.

Meanwhile, a report in the Columbia Journalism Reviewheadlined "The Palm Beach Post exposes a hidden menace" applauded Singer's "old-fashioned muckraking journalism."

Before Armstrong issued his statement but after a deputy secretary had issued one with similar sentiments, the Post published an editorial accusing DOH of recklessly covering up the outbreak in order to justify the closing of the TB sanitarium.

It called on Gov. Rick Scott to appoint a task force to investigate the handling of the TB outbreak and urged lawmakers to "realize that they made a mistake in closing A.G. Holley, and need a real plan for handling the state’s hardest-to-treat tuberculosis cases."

Lottie Watts covers health and health policy for Health News Florida, now a part of WUSF Public Media. She also produces Florida Matters, WUSF's weekly public affairs show.