Actions after boy died are questioned Letter from school termed 'not adequate'

March 06, 1998|By Erin Texeira and Erika D. Peterman | Erin Texeira and Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

The Howard County school system's efforts to disseminate information about a possible case of meningitis at an Ellicott City school this week run counter to policies of neighboring counties and the advice of public health officials.

After a Worthington Elementary School second-grader died Sunday of a fast-moving infection that health authorities feared was bacterial meningitis, which is contagious, the school system sent home letters with students leaving the school on Monday.

"That's not an adequate approach," said Dr. Richard Levinson of the American Public Health Association. "You need to go out to the homes and knock on doors. You can't send letters home -- half of them don't even get there. They become paper airplanes."

School officials also had no plans to contact the media to spread word of the disease and its symptoms until they were contacted by a local television station late Monday afternoon.

Said Dr. Peter Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, "I cannot imagine a case [of a deadly infectious disease] which we would not notify the media and parents. We're pretty open about all this stuff."

Howard County school spokeswoman Patti Caplan said that the actions of the system this week were appropriate.

"Our primary responsibility is to get that information into the hands of the immediate school community and we have vehicles in place to do that," she said.

"There are times when the media need to be involved and times when they don't," she said. "It's an individual call based on information the Health Department gives us."

Dr. Willa Brown, director of the Howard County Health Department's Bureau of Public Health, said her department's policy is to send letters home in such instances.

Noting that the county's small Health Department has no public information component, she said it depends in part on the school system's public information office for media relations in such instances.

"Actually, with this we had very little coordination because it came up so fast," Brown said of this week's case.

Yesterday, Howard school officials and county public health officials worked out some details on how to handle such incidents, but most of the current policy will remain unchanged, Caplan said.

Baltimore County school spokesman Don Mohler -- who would not comment specifically on the Howard County incident -- said he typically involves the news media when issues of public interest occur in the school system.

Media involvement

"I tend to think that you ought to have the press there," Mohler said. "The more people that know what's going on, the better it is for everybody."

Carey Gaddis, a public information officer for the Carroll County school system, echoed Mohler's philosophy.

"Naturally, we would notify the media immediately" should a similar issue arise, Gaddis said.

Typically, in Baltimore, public health officials immediately meet with parents to share information, Beilenson said.

"Often, the media helps us by notifying the parents about the meetings," he said.

But in Howard, an information meeting for parents at Worthington Wednesday night was closed to the media. Some 50 parents who attended applauded when a camera crew from Fox 45 was asked to leave. It was not clear how the information from the meeting would reach parents who were unable to attend the meeting.

Hysteria

Levinson of the American Public Health Association said he understood a reluctance to involve the media, saying news reports can cause hysteria. He added that the press should be used in cases -- such as that of airplane passengers -- involving exposed people who are widely dispersed and difficult to contact.

After attending school in good health Feb. 27, 8-year-old Steven Chilton began feeling ill Saturday and was admitted to Howard County General Hospital Sunday with a high fever. Later that day, he was flown to Johns Hopkins Medical Center. He died that night.

At the time, Health Department officials said it was "probable" Steven had died of bacterial meningitis, the more serious form of the infection. By late Monday, that diagnosis was being questioned. A strep or meningococcal infection is now believed to have killed the child, doctors said.

Final test results are pending.

Caplan learned of Steven's death about 10 a.m. or 11 a.m. Monday, when Worthington officials asked her to review a letter they had drafted to be sent home with students, she said.

School officials had contacted Health Department officials for their advice and to request a fact sheet on meningitis. They also awaited a letter from the Health Department that would be sent home with parents, Caplan said.

Caplan arrived at Worthington about 1: 45 p.m., she said. The letter from the Health Department arrived at 3: 20 p.m. -- 25 minutes before classes end for the day.

Some 500 copies of the letter and fact sheet, along with a letter from Worthington officials, were made and given to students as they left the building.

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