State sends TB patients to $35-a-night Jacksonville motel

JACKSONVILLE —

The low-rent coral and green motel on the outskirts of downtown doesn't look like a haven for tuberculosis patients.

But for at least two years, TB patients were routed by Duval County health officials to the Monterey Motel and told to stay put.

Longtime motel resident Alfred Scott — who was treated for the lung disease more than 20 years ago — said he and other residents only were told of the TB patients when they saw people wearing masks coming and going on the motel walkways.

"I stayed away," he said.

Patients remained at the motel until they no longer were contagious, state Department of Health spokeswoman Jessica Hammonds said.

The man-and-woman team responsible for cleaning rooms, who spoke only limited English, appeared confused when asked whether they had taken precautions. In fact, Kevin Davis, a former manager with the Duval County Health Department's TB unit, questioned whether hotel managers had been briefed fully about TB transmission or precautions for staff.

For example, he said, a maid should wait to enter the room for about an hour after the resident has left. Shades should be opened because sunlight can help kill TB germs. Typically, physicians and other health care workers will don special air filtering masks while in enclosed places with TB patients.

However, Hammonds said motel workers were briefed on infection control. The hotel's owner, Raman Patel, said staff was instructed to wait before entering the rooms to clean, usually after the hotel resident had stepped outside for about 30 minutes, and to handle trash carefully.

In fact, Hammonds said, adequate ventilation and air conditioning were key reasons the Monterey was chosen. There's no air-sharing system among rooms.

No other Jacksonville hotel or motel was used to house TB patients, she said Saturday.

Initially, Hammonds refused to provide any information concerning TB patients sent to motels, citing patient confidentiality.

Locally, Palm Beach County Health Department spokesman Tim O'Connor said his agency does not put TB patients in motels. But, he added, Palm Beach County has not seen an outbreak like that hitting Jacksonville, and in any event, "We always had A.G. Holley," the now-shuttered state hospital for TB patients.

State health officials abruptly shut down Holley on July 2, six months before it was slated to close under a new law, and more than seven months after health officials — but not all legislators — became aware of the North Florida TB outbreak.

Linked to 13 deaths and 99 illnesses, including six infected children, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called the outbreak one of the worst the CDC had investigated in 20 years. The CDC's 25-page report describing Jacksonville's outbreak went unseen by key lawmakers voting to shut the Lantana facility, The Palm Beach Post revealed July 8.

Emails show that the state went into overdrive in the face of the sooner-than-expected shutdown, scrambling to find replacement facilities.

Private housing for TB patients isn't unheard of: In the past fiscal year, the state paid $29,897 to house 32 TB clients. Before the state recently stopped using it, Tallahassee paid the Monterey $11,338.

Quizzed by state Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, a Department of Health spokesperson confirmed homeless clients or those who need temporary isolation are placed in motels.

But the state is rethinking its policy, Surgeon General John Armstrong told the Duval County Legislative Delegation this month. "We are moving beyond that model," Armstrong said.

There will almost certainly be a need for some kind of transitional housing. Stung by news reports, the state health department mounted an all-out campaign this month to test Jacksonville's homeless for TB. While the goal is to test 90 percent of an estimated 3,000 people potentially exposed to the contagious disease in the next six weeks, the practical effect is to try and test just about every one of the city's roughly 4,000 homeless.

On a recent weekday, a line snaked around the Clara White Mission starting before dawn, as homeless men and women lined up to have blood drawn by health department workers. "I know people who died," said Lawrence Webb, who rode up on his bicycle to get tested. "They would sit under the expressway with their bag lunch, just coughing. That TB is out there."

Former Department of Health Deputy Director Dr. Steven Harris defended the decision not to alert the public about the TB outbreak by arguing that it was largely confined to Jacksonville's homeless. Yet it has taken months for word of the outbreak to trickle down to those hit hardest.

Several homeless men told The Post they

only recently had heard about the outbreak, despite its having been on the health department's radar since late last year. "They should have stopped this months ago, " said John Sweet, an unemployed construction worker sitting in a downtown park. He had heard of the outbreak two weeks earlier, when news reports first began saturating the city. "It's inexcusable we didn't know about it."

Back at the Monterey, Alfred Scott has his own complaint with the health department: "I think people at the motel needed to be told what was going on."

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