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Reporters aren’t the enemy of public health

I have never met Dr. John Armstrong, the new secretary of the Florida Department of Health. Not for lack of trying. It just seems that he's always too busy to spare even five minutes.

It's too bad, because it would have been helpful for Dr. Armstrong to have open lines of communication with the state's health reporters when a crisis erupted with Monday's Palm Beach Postarticleabout a Jacksonville tuberculosis outbreak. The gist of the story: Since 2008 there has been a worrisome number of related tuberculosis infections and deaths, mainly among the homeless and mentally ill.  The number of cases had been going down but spiked back up again last year and is still not under control. There's a backlog of thousands of contacts who need to be tracked down and screened.

The article suggested that the outbreak was not contained, based on a25-page reportby a CDC official in April. It called the TB outbreak the most serious in the nation in 20 years, with 13 deaths and 99 illnesses among those infected.

Armstrong has chosen to handle the crisis in a curious way: by attacking the press.

He has it wrong. Reporters are not his enemies, although right now it may feel that way; his enemies are disease and ignorance. A well-informed press corps can advance the cause of public health.

Reporter Stacey Singer, who wrote the Post article, said she struggled for weeks to get records on the outbreak from CDC and DOH. She wrote that despite the Sunshine Law, DOH would not give her the records until she drove to Tallahassee to demand them in person.

When the article was published, Armstrong had a choice: He could have made full disclosure of all the facts surrounding the outbreak, answered reporters' questions and explained what DOH is doing now to contain it. But he didn't make a peep.

Late Monday, DOH sent outa statementfrom Dr. Steven Harris, deputy secretary for health, excoriating the Post for "outrageous...inaccuracies."  The release didn't carry much weight, though, because the Post by then had a link to the CDC report, which backed up many points in the  article.

On Tuesday Harris was videotaped in an impromptu interview trying to assure the public that there's no need for concern because the outbreak affects only the homeless population in one city. He also said DOH routinely keeps its outbreak investigations secret so as not to alarm the public. It was not reassuring.

Wednesday was, if anything, worse. Dr. Armstrong -- still nowhere to be seen -- sent out a press release accusing the Post of distorting the facts and printing inaccuracies.  He listed several statements from the article that he said weren't correct, but the evidence he presented was thin.

Meanwhile, the story went viral. Writing in Columbia Journalism Review, Trudy Lieberman called Singer's article "old-fashioned muckraking journalism."  Because of it, CJR said, "the world now knows Florida is a state that has a TB problem, and has undercut its ability to contend with that problem. The story raises profound questions about the effect of continued government cost-cutting on public health, historically an underfunded stepchild of the healthcare system."

I don't really know whether the Jacksonville TB outbreak is much of a threat. I don't know whether the state was right to shutter the TB hospital in Lantana, given the expense of operating it. I don't know whether state officials' zeal to downsize DOH factored into their low-key handling of the outbreak.

But I do know Stacey Singer. She's responsible, experienced and gets her facts straight.

I don't know John Armstrong at all. 

--Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to journalism in the public interest. Contact Editor Carol Gentry at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.

Carol Gentry, founder and special correspondent of Health News Florida, has four decades of experience covering health finance and policy, with an emphasis on consumer education and protection.