Statement: “San Diego has the highest rate of (tuberculosis) cases in the nation,” Yvonne Silva, the admissions supervisor for the county’s tuberculosis clinic, told the Board of Supervisors at a budget meeting May 11.

Determination: False

Analysis: At least two government surveys on the frequency of tuberculosis cases prove this ranking false, but first, a little background.

The county is proposing to cut $145 million from its operating budget next year and some of those savings would come from eliminating 592 positions. Most of those positions are vacant, but some are not, and that’s why Silva entered the discussion.

When a filled position is eliminated, the county’s Human Resources Department tries to find a new job for the displaced employee somewhere else in county government. In some cases, workforce seniority allows that employee to take over another person’s job.

If the county approves the proposed budget cuts, it would indirectly push Silva and three admission colleagues out of their jobs at the tuberculosis clinic. The clerks would be displaced by four other county employees with higher seniority in the workforce whose jobs were eliminated. (Just to be clear, the budget proposal would not cut these four positions at the tuberculosis clinic, but change who works them.)

Silva told the county supervisors that it took years to build an admissions staff of highly trained, bilingual workers and argued that any change would “definitely interfere with public safety and be disastrous,” especially if new staff don’t speak Spanish.

“Why safety?” Silva rhetorically asked the supervisors. “TB is airborne. San Diego has the highest rate of cases in the nation, and this is a communicable disease and highly infectious. … My TB clerks are highly trained at screening and protecting the public.”

Tuberculosis is very contagious and deadly, but San Diego is not the country’s epicenter. In fact, the per capita case rate falls below numerous other California counties and metropolitan areas across the nation.

In 2009, San Diego County had about seven cases of tuberculosis per 100,000 residents. By comparison with other California counties, that’s the ninth highest rate, according to this report from state health officials.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also compares case rates among metropolitan regions. In 2008, the San Diego region had 8.8 cases per 100,000 residents. That was the seventh highest rate, behind places like Honolulu, San Jose and El Paso.

We also asked Dean Sidelinger, the county’s deputy public health officer, if the number of cases recently would likely increase those rankings. “No,” Sidelinger replied. “We don’t expect those rankings to change significantly from year to year.”

When asked about the statistic Thursday, Silva was surprised to hear about the government rankings. The Union-Tribune had even reported the false statistic in its story about the budget meeting, directly quoting Silva.

For what it’s worth, if the county does end up pushing Silva and her colleagues out of their current jobs, they could end up finding positions elsewhere in the county. As of May 11, county officials expect the number of laid off workers to be less than 50.

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Summer Polacek

Summer Polacek was formerly the Development Manager at Voice of San Diego.

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