Hooters waitress allegedly contracts tuberculosis at Inner Harbor restaurant

Over the past seven months, Jheri Stratton has been quarantined in her house for a while, ordered to wear a mask to walk her dog, and monitored twice a week by a city Health Department official who watches to ensure that she swallows a handful of pills. She has had to cancel vacations and explain to friends why she can't go out.

Since the former waitress at Hooters in downtown Baltimore was diagnosed with active tuberculosis in November, allegedly after she and others contracted the disease from a manager at the Harborplace restaurant, her life has been miserable, Stratton said.

"It's just horrible, there's nothing else I can say," the 19-year-old 2010 graduate of Randallstown High School said. "I just wish none of this had ever happened."

Last month, Stratton was awarded workers' compensation from Hooters for lost wages and medical expenses, according to Bruce Block, Stratton's attorney and managing partner of Baltimore-based Jenkins Block & Associates. It was the latest and most official recognition of what Stratton has been going through.

"It feels like a weight lifted off my shoulders because it's finally someone acknowledging that this isn't my fault," Stratton said. "Hooters is acknowledging the fact that this wasn't something that I just picked up on the MTA."

The public and patrons of the restaurant weren't at risk of contracting the disease, which is transmitted through prolonged exposure, said Dr. Evelyn Rodriguez, deputy commissioner of the Baltimore City Health Department's Division of Disease Control.

Aside from Stratton, multiple other members of the Hooters staff were confirmed to have latent or nonactive tuberculosis after the restaurant and the Health Department scheduled two separate testings for staff at downtown hotels last October and in March, city health officials said.

Neither Rodriguez nor David Henninger, chief marketing officer and spokesman for Hooters of America, would disclose the exact number of latent cases found. The manager who allegedly spread the disease was not identified.

Henninger said management at the Harborplace location — which the chain considers one if its premier locations, with between 75 and 100 "Hooters girls" employed — worked closely with the Health Department during the past year to ensure that all proper medical steps were taken. Rodriguez said Hooters cooperated fully with the Health Department.

Stratton was first admitted at Sinai Hospital for a week in November, then quarantined in her home for a month after contracting the disease, and has since experienced serious medical problems, Block said.

Stratton, who said she had initially thought her cough and flu-like symptoms were related to her smoking and picking up some more common bug, said her tuberculosis has since caused much more serious symptoms, damaged her liver and forced her to remain on heavy medication. She had to take 10 pills a day for about a month. That's now down to 10 pills twice a week, which a health official watches her take to ensure she's adhering to her treatment.

The number of confirmed tuberculosis cases in the city each year has been dropping during the past decade, leveling off more recently to about 32 cases per year, Rodriguez said. That's compared with 60 confirmed cases in 2001, she said. Hospitals must report confirmed tuberculosis diagnoses to local health departments.

Stratton, who said she had worked at Hooters since March 2011, was fired two days after her workers' compensation claim was granted May 22.

"On the days I have to take my medicine, usually I'm nauseous and things like that," Stratton said. "And I was experiencing all these symptoms at Hooters, but they had no sympathy."

Henninger said there were "other on-the-job issues that came up that led to" Stratton's dismissal but would not elaborate.

According to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tuberculosis is spread through the air by infected people coughing, sneezing or speaking. People with latent tuberculosis cannot spread the disease. The bacterial infection most often attacks an infected person's lungs but can also attack the kidney, spine and brain, and can be fatal.

"Persons with TB disease are most likely to spread the bacteria to other people they spend time with every day, such as family members or co-workers," according to a tuberculosis fact sheet for employers on the CDC website.

Whenever a case is confirmed in the city, Rodriguez said, health officials begin speaking with close contacts of the infected person and then less frequent contacts. "We call that a concentric circle approach," she said.

Rodriguez stressed that tuberculosis is often harder to contract than the common cold or flu, and said the department's investigation surrounding the case at Hooters, including the two staff testings, was not out of the ordinary or on a particularly large scale compared with other workplace investigations the city has conducted.

David Dowdy, an assistant professor in the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health's epidemiology department, provided a similar assessment.

"There are nurses who work in TB hospital wards in other countries that are not particularly well ventilated, and they can work with these patients every day for a year and not contract TB," he said, "so the overall risk for one case creating a large number of secondary cases is much smaller than the diseases we think about as being respiratory diseases such as the cold or the flu."

After being quarantined and starting treatment, Stratton returned to work at Hooters, where she said managers expressed frustration with her inability to work at a normal pace and co-workers said they noticed she had lost significant weight and couldn't eat.

Stratton, who lives with her girlfriend, Mari McCoy, and McCoy's family, said she was told by managers at the restaurant that her illness was "not serious" and that she shouldn't tell her family, which she considers McCoy's family to be, or friends about it or how she contracted it.

"Obviously, the fact that I have tuberculosis is something my family, who I live with, would need to know," she said, noting her arm swelled and oozed pus after she was given a shot there to test for the disease.

Initially, insurance attorneys for the Hooters company, which is based in Atlanta, challenged Stratton's claim — which Block filed with the Maryland Workers' Compensation Commission in December — and a hearing was scheduled for June 6. But the challenge was dropped last month and the agency granted approval of the claim, according to commission records.

Stratton will be compensated for all her medical costs, for two-thirds of her lost wages during her illness — which compensation commission records put at $545 per week missed — and for "any permanent impairment" associated with her contracting the disease, Block said. Henninger confirmed that account.

"It's a lifetime benefit for medical coverage," Block said.

In substantiating Stratton's claim, Block said he confirmed that multiple other Hooters employees had contracted nonactive tuberculosis — which means tuberculosis bacteria is present in a person's body but there is no active illness — and that he was "pretty astonished and shocked" that the restaurant was never closed.

"To hear that the Health Department hadn't shut down the facility, that nobody knew, that the public wasn't aware?" Block said. "My client was a waitress, so she certainly was exposed to a lot of people."

Rodriguez said because of the epidemiology of tuberculosis and what is known about how it spreads — only among close contacts with prolonged exposure to the infected person, and only through airborne droplets and not via surfaces like plates, glasses or toilet seats — warning the public or closing the restaurant would have been "completely unwarranted."

The Health Department also found that the Hooters manager who had the confirmed case of tuberculosis was "not very infectious," Rodriguez said.

Stratton said she'll finally be finished with her medications in August and is looking forward to moving on with her life. She wants to go to school for cosmetology, she said.

"I'm not waiting any more tables for a very, very long time," she said.