Arrest order extended for Pierce County woman with tuberculosis

A civil arrest warrant has been extended for a Tacoma woman who has refused treatment for tuberculosis for more than a year, according to Pierce County health officials.

The case has been escalating for months, prompting a county judge to issue the arrest order in February as a “last possible resort,” the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said at the time. It was the 16th time the health department had gone to court in the case, reflecting its determination to get the woman to a facility to isolate, test and receive treatment for the contagious, potentially life-threatening disease that spreads through the air.

Before that, Judge Philip Sorenson had found the woman in civil contempt for refusing to comply with previous orders that she take medication or isolate. She had still not been taken into custody, so last week, Sorenson extended her arrest warrant.

“We have worked with family and community members for more than a year to do everything we can to persuade this woman to take her medication to protect herself and our community,” the health department said in a March statement. “After 15 court hearings, we are closing in on our last option.”

The woman’s condition isn’t clear, though last month a county sheriff’s deputy saw her boarding a bus to a local casino, according to court filings. The health department believes she’s still infected, it said in a petition earlier this month.

Her attorneys did not respond to a request for comment on the case.

The woman would be quarantined “until medical tests conclusively establish that she no longer presents a threat to the public health, safety, and welfare,” the order says.

The next court hearing is scheduled for June 23.

Because TB poses a “greater threat to public health than other communicable diseases,” court documents say, state law grants local health officers the power to test and treat TB patients, even if they’re unwilling.

This is just the third time in the past 20 years health officials have sought a court order to detain someone who is potentially contagious and refusing treatment for TB, an infectious disease that usually affects the lungs, the Pierce County health department has said. It can also affect lymph nodes, bones, joints and other parts of the body and is curable but can be deadly without medication.

Typical symptoms include fever, weight loss, night sweats, coughing and chest pain, according to the state Department of Health.

Pierce County has about 20 cases of active TB per year, while the state generally records about 150 to 250 cases per year. In 2020, the state’s most recent confirmed TB data, six people died from the disease.

Washington state law requires health care providers to report all active cases to the health department. According to the department, “nearly all patients we contact are more than happy to get the treatment they need to help protect themselves and our community.”

Most TB infections are latent or dormant (approximately 100,000 people in King County have latent TB infections), which means a person has no symptoms and cannot spread the disease, according to health officials.

Active TB is much harder to spread than the cold or flu, health officials said. For an infection to occur, it typically takes repeated and prolonged exposure in a confined indoor space.

State and international health officials have become increasingly concerned with TB outbreaks in the past year, particularly after the World Health Organization confirmed in October infections had risen globally for the first time in years.

According to the health agency, more than 10 million people worldwide were infected with TB in 2021, reflecting a 4.5% increase from the year before.

Even more dramatic surges emerged in Washington, which saw a 22% increase in cases between 2020 and 2021, the state has said.

Last April, Washington’s largest TB outbreak in 20 years erupted in a state prison, infecting at least 17 people. The state Department of Corrections ended up facing an $84,000 fine for failing to provide workers with respirators and putting them at risk during the outbreak.

Information from The Seattle Times archives was included in this article.

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