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Masks may have helped limit tuberculosis spread at Concord High School, experts say

Monitor staff
Published: 10/15/2021 5:03:48 PM

Infectious disease control experts say the case of tuberculosis at Concord High School is a “likely low risk event,” made even less risky by the school’s COVID-19 precautions.

Interim superintendent Kathleen Murphy notified families Wednesday that the Department of Health and Human Services identified a positive case of tuberculosis (TB) in a person who was present in the Concord High School building.

The infected person is no longer at the school, but if students or staff have had prolonged contact with this person since the start of the school year, they may have been exposed to the bacteria that causes the disease, the NH Bureau of Infectious Disease Control told the district Tuesday.

Thanks to the school’s policy requiring masks be worn inside, Dr. Elizabeth Talbot, an infectious disease expert from Dartmouth-Hitchcock, said she hopes there will be no other infections.

“I think it’s even less likely that anyone will have become infected because of diligence in wearing masks,” she said. “We’re in a better place because of these masks.”

Tuberculosis is an airborne infectious disease spread through coughing, speaking, and singing. However, at the information session Thursday night, Talbott said it is not spread by other daily activities like shaking hands, sharing food or kissing, which means Concord High School will not require special cleaning to contain the disease.

Talbot said tuberculosis is a very common infectious disease across the globe and that most people likely know someone who has low levels of the TB bacteria. Since 2011, there have been 123 documented cases of tuberculosis in New Hampshire, 18 of which were reported in Merrimack County.

Dr. James Noble from Concord Hospital said the appropriate measures to contain tuberculosis is noncontroversial and well delineated.

“Unlike the huge unknowns that continue to exist with COVID, this is a situation that is very, very well understood,” Noble said.

Talbot said it often takes months to years from when someone is exposed to exhibit symptoms of TB, which includes night sweats, pain in the chest, a cough lasting longer than three weeks or, in more severe cases, a cough that produces blood.

She said the majority of people who inhale the bacteria never develop symptoms. In some cases, they develop latent tuberculosis, a condition in which there are not enough TB bacteria to alter the body’s normal function or spread the germs to others. A latent TB infection can sit dormant in the body for decades or develop into active tuberculosis. Treating latent tuberculosis can prevent the bacteria from later developing into a symptomatic sickness.

Talbot said public health workers are in the process of identifying close contacts of the infected person and scheduling them for testing. She said families will be notified if they have been exposed in the next few days.

In the meantime, students do not need to quarantine, even if they believe they’ve been exposed to the disease.

“The bacteria are not yet multiplying,” she said. “It is not the type of emergency we’re used to dealing with for COVID. We have time to do this right, to do this thoughtfully and thoroughly.”

There are two types of TB tests close contacts may be asked to undergo — a skin test and a blood test. She said if a close contact’s test comes back positive, they will be referred to receive a medical exam.

“I would encourage people to avoid the ‘are-we-there-yet phenomenon’,” Noble said. “I’ve been in this movie before and this really does take eight to ten weeks to produce useful information.”

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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