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Tacoma woman with TB could be jailed for refusing treatment

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Law enforcement might soon get involved in a tuberculosis case in Pierce County.

A Tacoma woman with contagious tuberculosis is refusing to self-isolate and accept treatment, despite more than one court order mandating that she do so.

“The risk to the public here is very low,” said Nigel Turner, the county health department’s director of communicable disease control. “But we want to make sure this is isolated effectively to prevent any risk.”

Turner said the next step in cases like this is usually to put the person in jail, in a negative-pressure unit so they can’t infect others while they receive medical treatment.

Even once someone with tuberculosis has started treatment, it can take several weeks to several months until they are no longer contagious and can leave isolation, in this case jail. A full course of treatment can take six to nine months. The treatment can have unpleasant side effects.

The health department has been trying to get the woman to isolate and accept treatment for more than a year and has offered support to make that happen.

As far as the department has been able to determine, she has not infected anyone with tuberculosis during that time. You have to be in the same room as someone with active TB for several hours to be infected. The health department has tested those who have had close contact with the woman.

About 20 to 25 people per year get active tuberculosis in Pierce County, Turner said. Most willingly work with the department to isolate.

“I think in the last 20 years, we've had about three where we've needed to go to kind of the legal recourse around court orders in order to get compliance,” he said. “It's very much a last resort. It's not something we want to do.”

Turner said the department takes these steps only for tuberculosis cases, not for any other diseases, because there is no widely available tuberculosis vaccine, and people with active disease are contagious for a long time.

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