Why Tuberculosis Could Put This Woman In Jail

In January 2022, Washington's Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) ordered a woman to isolate herself to ensure public safety. The unnamed woman, as reported by The News Tribune, was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and although she started treatment for the disease, she failed to complete it. Personnel from the health department had been working with the woman's family to convince her to push forward with her treatments in order to keep her and others in the community safe.

In February 2023, TPCHD announced that it is still monitoring the woman, as she has not been following several court orders issued to her to isolate or continue treatment for tuberculosis. A representative from the health department stated that cases like this are rare, as patients typically welcome treatment when diagnosed with a communicable disease. The representative also said that in the past two decades, they have only had to resort to seeking help from law enforcement three times. Several court orders were filed throughout 2022, but the woman failed to comply. The TPCHD was forced to take more drastic action after it was discovered that the woman was involved in a car accident in which she was a passenger. This proved that the woman was not in isolation as ordered.

Facts about tuberculosis

Tuberculosis, also called TB, is a bacterial infection that attacks the lungs. Without treatment, TB can lead to other health complications, such as kidney and liver issues, joint and spinal pain, meningitis, and heart problems, as reported by the Mayo Clinic. TB is categorized as being latent or active. Latent TB means that a person has the bacteria in the system, but it is inactive and thus not contagious. Active TB, on the other hand, comes with symptoms like coughing and chest pains and is contagious.

As reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TB can be transmitted to other people via microscopic airborne particles when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or even just talks, and others inhale the droplets. People are more likely to get TB when exposed to an infected person repeatedly or for long periods of time. Per the Mayo Clinic, it can take weeks of treatment before the medication takes effect and a person is no longer contagious. During the treatment, it is advisable that the patient isolates or wears a face mask when in contact with others. Completing the treatment is essential, as discontinuing the medication may result in the mutation of the TB, which makes it resistant to most drugs. This makes the disease more challenging to treat.

Communicable disease laws

The woman in Washington infected with TB was repeatedly warned via court orders that failure to get treatment and isolate might result in more drastic measures. As reported by The News Tribune, after the car accident, the woman went to the hospital and received a chest X-ray, and it was determined that her TB had progressed. She also failed to disclose to the hospital staff that she had TB, which put other people's health at risk. Furthermore, she was found to be positive for COVID-19.

Most states have laws regarding communicable diseases, and it is considered a criminal offense for someone infected to expose other people on purpose, according to NOLO. In the case of the Washington woman, she had been evading treatment for one year and wasn't isolating herself, which is considered reckless behavior. TPCHD Director of Communicable Disease Control Nigel Turner told The News Tribune that involving law enforcement is the final option in cases like this one. However, he stated that it is necessary to prevent the woman from risking other people's health. The court filings note that the woman may be subjected to electronic home monitoring or jail time for her failure to comply with health protocols. It wasn't disclosed why she refused to complete her treatment.