This story was updated at 1:55 p.m. June 25.
In the wake of reports that as many as 430 students and faculty at Robert E. Lee High School could have been exposed to active tuberculosis, Fairfax County Health Department officials are trying to reassure residents while offering free tests and information on the infectious disease.
Three people within the Lee High School community have been identified as having active TB. One person was diagnosed in December 2012, and two were diagnosed in June.
Beginning last Friday, the health department hosted a free clinic at the high school offering free TB tests to those who had received letters from Fairfax County Public Schools on their possible exposure.
About half of those receiving notice of risk from FCPS visited a health department’s temporary clinic at the school as of noon Monday.
“Once a person receives the TST test, then he or she must return 48-72 hours later to have a health professional ‘read’ the individual’s arm for results,” Health Department spokesman Glen Barbour said. “This second part of the testing began [Monday] and will continue through this week for those who are being tested at the special clinic we’ve set up at Lee High School. If someone tests positive at this stage, that means that they may have latent TB infection, which is not contagious—not necessarily active TB disease, which is contagious. Those individuals with a positive result will then get a chest x-ray as the next step.”
Barbour said he could not report on whether anyone tested so far had tested positive, adding that once all testing is completed the Health Department will likely release more information.
The free TB tests are being offered at the high school to these individuals beginning Friday, June 21. Clinics are being held in the high school’s cafeteria from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and from 6 to 7:30 p.m. and June 24 through 28 to test only those who were notified by letter.
“The 430 individuals who we are testing today [Monday] have been identified as possibly having been exposed based on the amount of time they spent in proximity to any of the three cases prior to coming to our attention,” said Dr. Gloria Addo-Ayensu, director of the Fairfax County Department of Health. She and other Health Department officials addressed the TB cases and ongoing investigation of possible additional infections during a press conference last Friday afternoon.
“We really cast a broad net in an effort to make sure that we would be able to identify anyone who may have spent any considerable amount of time with any of the three individuals,” she said. Unlike other infectious diseases like influenza, TB is not spread easily, she said.
“It is not spread, for example, through touching surfaces or even holding someone’s hand, and so on. TB is not spread outside of the body for any considerable amount of time,” Addo-Ayensu said.
The three individuals found to have active TB earlier this year have not attended the school since their diagnosis, she said.
“So there has been no further risk of TB transmission at Lee High School from these three individuals,” she said. “Only people with active TB can spread the infection.”
The two individuals diagnosed in June tested positive for TB within a short time of each other and their connection to Lee High School caused the Health Department to investigate any further cases within the school’s community.
“One of these three individuals that we’ve looking at did not have active TB as a result of exposure in the school environment,” Addo-Ayensu said. “That individual was exposed somewhere else and we are still working with that individual. So basically, that individual –coming to our attention at this time—is really a coincidence. It’s really unusual that we would have three in such a short timeframe but now we realize that one of the three is not ill with active TB as a result of being exposed at Lee High School.”
According to the health department, about 90 people are identified by the department as having active TB each year. Because there were two new cases reported at Lee High School, the department decided to reopen its investigation and alert the public.
Symptoms of active TB include coughing that lasts three weeks or more, chest pains, coughing up blood or sputum, weakness or fatigue, weight loss and lack of appetite, chills, fever and night sweats. The health department says TB is preventable and curable if treated.
For more information, visit www.cdc.gov/tb.
For more information on Lee High School’s TB scare, go to www.fairfaxcounty.gov/hd/hdnews/2013-tb-investigation.htm