The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department in Washington has obtained multiple court orders requiring a Tacoma resident to get treatment for her active tuberculosis, officials told NBC News on Friday.
The woman has thus far refused to isolate or take the necessary medications, according to Nigel Turner, the department’s division director of Communicable Disease Control.
“The court order is in place ordering isolation and quarantine,” Turner said. “We’re working with her on assessing the compliance with that.”
The News Tribune, a local news outlet, reported on Friday that over the past year, the health department has repeatedly sought and been granted court orders compelling the woman to isolate and get treated for tuberculosis. According to the Tribune, legal petitions from the department said the patient had not abided by previous orders, and had at one point started but discontinued medication. The health department confirmed the Tribune’s reporting to NBC News.
A judge issued the latest order on Jan. 20, granting the department the authority to test, treat and detain the woman, starting next week.
The department announced Monday that it was monitoring the case and said at the time that it was working with the woman’s family to persuade her to accept treatment.
The department declined to offer information about why the woman has refused treatment.
Under Washington state law, public health officials have the legal authority to seek a court order when a person’s refusal to take medication poses a threat to the public.
Tuberculosis can rise to that level because it can be deadly if left untreated, and infectious people risk spreading the disease further. The bacteria that causes tuberculosis can spread through the air when a person with an active case coughs, sneezes or speaks.
The treatment process can take three to nine months, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People who discontinue medications before treatment is complete can also develop antibiotic resistance.
When it comes to taking legal action, Turner said, “it’s very reluctantly that we do that because obviously we’re balancing people’s civil liberties against protecting the health of the public.”
In the past 20 years, the department said, it has had to enlist the help of law enforcement to detain three people who refused tuberculosis treatment until they were no longer infectious. Turner said the department typically exhausts other measures before seeking a court order, such as enlisting family members, medical providers or infectious disease experts to reason with a patient.