Nine months after Meramec State Park employees were tested for signs of the Bourbon virus, two lawmakers are demanding answers from the Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS).
On Thursday, State Reps. Nathan Tate, R-St. Clair, and Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, along with House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick, R-Shell Knob, met with DHSS Director Dr. Randall Williams in Jefferson City regarding the testing and the lack of information they have released to the public.
Tate, who originally made the inquiries, said the DHSS attorneys told the lawmakers they can’t legally give out the testing information because the number of people tested was so small their identities could be revealed inadvertently by process of elimination.
“They are citing Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) laws,” Tate said. “Was it two or 200 people tested? We’re not trying to out anyone. Is this something the public needs to be warned about?”
Tate said the secrecy is putting the lawmakers in a precarious spot because they don’t have answers to whether the citizens should be afraid or not.
“It’s basically a different interpretation of the law,” Tate said. “They (DHSS) understand what’s at stake. This isn’t something we want to drag out. The House has lawyers looking into it. It’s not out yet, but we should be having more meetings next week.”
The testing was ordered after Assistant Park Superintendent Tamela Wilson contracted the virus from a tick bite in the park on Memorial Day weekend last summer. She died just days later after the virus exacerbated a pre-existing medical condition.
Wilson’s diagnosis with Bourbon virus was only the fifth case ever recorded worldwide.
The blood testing was done September 2017, after staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) were in Franklin County investigating the source of the virus and worked with local public health agencies to test for evidence of Bourbon virus in the blood of some Missouri state park workers.
At that time, the CDC’s Arboviral Disease Branch tested each blood sample for the presence of Bourbon virus antibodies, which may indicate a previous exposure to the virus.
Sara O’Connor, chief of public information for the DHSS, said no other employees have shown virus symptoms and would not release the number of employees tested, or any information.
In a statement, O’Conner said testing was not done to diagnose illness in individuals. Rather, it was done for surveillance purposes to determine whether persons have previously been exposed to the virus.
Six months after the testing was done, no results, either positive or negative, have been released.
The Missourian submitted a Sunshine request asking the DHSS for the results of the employee blood testing, but was told the records requested cannot be provided because they are protected under state statutes (Sections 192.067 and 610.021(14), RSMo) pertaining to medical and health records.
The total number of employees tested and their identities have also been withheld by DHSS.
Through two additional Sunshine requests to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources (MoDNR) The Missourian obtained a list of employees working in the park last year at the same time Wilson contracted the virus.
In addition to 10 full-time employees, 25 additional seasonal workers between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2017.
Wilson’s death prompted a collection of thousands of tick specimens that were also tested by the CDC in Atlanta.
The CDC found no signs of Bourbon virus in any of the samples after testing more than 7,000 ticks collected.
A statement released by DHSS stated just because no virus was found in the samples does not mean the virus is not present in some ticks in the park.
Instead, it means no ticks that might have been infected at the time of this investigation were trapped and tested.