A deadline came and went this week with still no answers released about Bourbon virus testing in Franklin County and lawmakers are getting even more frustrated.
On Tuesday, a subpoena from the House Budget Committee was ignored and instead legal counsel for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) doubled down on withholding the information.
All while large cuts to the DHSS director’s staff budget of about $800,000 were approved in the state budget.
The cuts, proposed by Budget Committee vice-chairman State Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, include the elimination of eight full-time equivalent positions from the director’s office for 2019.
General Counsel for the DHSS, Nikki Loethen, told lawmakers, litigation may be needed to get the issue resolved and it will be up to the courts to determine whether or not the testing information can be disclosed.
Meramec State Park Assistant Superintendent Tamela Wilson died just last summer from complications related to the ultra-rare Bourbon virus.
Wilson lived in the park outside Sullivan and was bitten by a seed tick on Memorial Day weekend.
Since then, more than 7,000 ticks were collected from the park and tested negative for the virus.
According to the Department of Natural Resources, there were 10 full-time and 25 part-time employees working in the park last summer.
Some park staff were voluntarily tested, but the exact number and results of those tests are being withheld by DHSS citing patient privacy.
State Rep. Nathan Tate, R-St. Clair, along with Alferman took up the issue with DHSS after multiple requests from The Missourian were ignored.
“Something in my gut says there is more to this,” Tate said. “The (budget) cuts are real and very deep. I don’t know why they (DHSS) are being such scrooges with the information and holding this so close to their vests.”
Tate added throughout the last few months, DHSS has “purposely sabotaged” the communications with lawmakers.
“They would give us information we didn’t ask for,” Tate said. “To avoid giving us the specific things we requested.”
Throughout the back and forth process, DHSS has cited the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), stating the pool of people tested was so small that if results were released any person or persons who tested positive could be identified.
The legal statement from DHSS states a statistical expert has confirmed that there is more than a small risk of identifying individuals if (the department) releases the number of positive test results.
Tate said he finds it strange that although there are less than 10 reported cases of Bourbon virus nationwide, 20 percent or more are in Missouri.
“Missouri seems to be higher than any other state?” Tate asked. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
Since March, five written requests for information on the Bourbon virus testing, DHSS budget cuts and tick investigation from The Missourian to DHSS received no response.
On Thursday The Missourian was informed former DHSS public information officer Sara O’Connor had left the department on April 11 and the position has not been filled.
Alferman told The Missourian DHSS Deputy Director Celesta Hargraves also left DHSS on May 1, taking the option to retire early.
All media inquiries are now being directed through director Dr. Randall Williams’ office.