Fears over TB outbreak cause game cancellations

Published 1:33 pm Friday, January 22, 2016

Concern over the tuberculosis outbreak in Perry County has resulted in basketball games at Francis Marion High School and R.C. Hatch High School being cancelled.

Perry County Superintendent John Heard said Keith, Selma and Demopolis have all cancelled upcoming basketball games due to fear around the outbreak.

A total of 49 people have tested positive for TB. In total, 27 people have developed tuberculosis. Specifically, 21 patients are from Marion, four are from the Tuscaloosa area and two are from Centreville.

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The Alabama Department of Public Health said there are nine active cases of TB in Marion, but there hasn’t been a single case in Uniontown during the outbreak.

“There’s no science behind it and no true logic behind it,” Heard said. “Some of our people work in these same schools that cancelled. They go over there and work. There’s no science behind it. Just plain fear.”

When Marion played Pickens County Tuesday night, Heard said Pickens players walked into the gym wearing surgical masks, but took them off quickly and did not wear them Thursday night when playing at R.C. Hatch.

Heard said the entire situation makes his students feel stigmatized.

“It makes them feel that there is something when there isn’t, and they know there’s nothing wrong,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate situation, especially for our children.”

Heard said he’s stayed in close contact with the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Alabama High School Athletic Association throughout the outbreak.

Pam Barrett, director of TB control for the Alabama Department of Public Health, said her phone has been ringing frequently to answer questions about the outbreak.

“I think every school within 100 miles of Marion has called,” Barrett said.

Barrett said there is no reason to cancel games because TB is spread through close contact in a confined area, not an open space such as a basketball court.

“A basketball court is not a place where you are going to pick up the TB germ,” Barrett said. “It takes several hours of repeated exposure in an enclosed area, so the size of a basketball gym is too large of a space to pick up the TB germ because it is airborne.”

Barrett said it’s unlikely that anyone with an active case of TB would even be at the game and even if they were, the length of time people spend at a game isn’t enough to be infected.

Dallas County Superintendent Don Willingham, who oversees Keith Middle/High School, said he spoke with Heard and Keith athletic director Tommy Tisdale before making a decision to cancel the Bears’ game against Marion scheduled for Jan. 29.

“Parents are concerned, and we certainly don’t want to put the children in a situation where the parents are uncomfortable,” Willingham said. “If we are going to make a mistake, we are going to make it on the side of caution.”

Selma High School cancelled its game against Hatch scheduled for Saturday.  Selma assistant principal Woodie Jackson, who also serves as the school’s boys’ basketball coach, echoed Willingham’s words.

“At the end of the day, it was a safety precaution,” Jackson said.

Steve Saverese, executive director of the Alabama High School Athletic Association, said the organization is relying on the state department of education.

“As long as the state department of education allows the children to attend school, they are allowed to participate in contests,” Savarese said. “All schools have agreements to participate in regular season games, and that’s an agreement between the two schools. The two schools can make a decision to play or not. We don’t govern whether children go to school. All we do is govern athletically.”

When postseason play begins in February, games will take place under the AHSAA’s state championship program for basketball. Area tournaments, which are hosted by the team that wins each regular season championship, start the basketball playoffs.

R.C. Hatch’s boys’ basketball team is 5-0 area play and is currently in line to host the class 2A, area 7 tournament, which will include Francis Marion, Holy Spirit and Pickens County.

“As long as the CDC and state department of education verify that it’s safe, all games will proceed,” Savarese said.

Saverese referred additional questions about postseason games to the AHSAA handbook. The handbook’s championship play interruption policy is followed when play is interrupted or threatened by public health, safety concerns, acts of God or other uncontrollable and unforeseen circumstances.

The handbook says “in the event that schools remain open, participants and teams shall be expected to play the contests on the scheduled dates.”

The regular season ends Feb. 2, but Marion’s may already be over, depending on whether or not a game scheduled for Friday night against Greensboro takes place. Heard said the schools were still in discussions about the game Friday morning.

R. C. Hatch has an area game scheduled against Holy Spirit on Jan. 26 and also had a game scheduled with Greensboro Feb. 2.