Judge Orders Woman to Be Incarcerated For Refusing to Seek TB Treatment

Judge Philip Sorenson of the Pierce County Superior Court in Washington has ordered that an unnamed Tacoma woman be jailed for repeatedly refusing to get treatment for tuberculosis. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department first took the woman’s case to court on January 9, 2022, and the court ordered her to be tested, isolated and treated at a medical facility.

But the woman refused to be isolated or to seek treatment for her active TB, raising the risk of spreading the contagious disease to others in the community. On 16 different occasions, the health department approached the court to have the woman arrested and forced into treatment; but she is yet to be arrested or made to undergo treatment.

After violating numerous court orders, the court found her guilty of contempt of court and issued an arrest warrant for her. Lawyers for the health department argued that the woman “knowingly, willfully, and contemptuously violated this court’s orders” to get TB treatment despite the many private discussions, translated documents, and language interpreters deployed to help her understand her condition.

The department of health again on March 3 approached the court for the 17th time to get a reprieve over the woman’s case. The woman attended the court session and remained obstinate to get TB treatment. She also refused to isolate herself or take the prescribed medications that would treat the disease and prevent it from spreading.

“We will continue to work through the court and to pursue all our options to protect the community and persuade the patient to voluntarily seek the life-saving treatment she needs,” the health department stated. “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 government said it has the legal right to force the woman into a medical facility for isolation and treatment, but it is trying to strike a “balance between restricting somebody’s liberty and protecting the health of the community.” The health department said forcing her into detention will be the “last option” to be considered in dealing with the recalcitrant woman.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said this is the third time in the last 20 years that a court order would be needed to persuade anyone to seek medical treatment. Officials said most people are happy to isolate and seek treatment to protect everyone else in their community, except for this particular woman and a few others over the years.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said tuberculosis is one of the deadliest and most infectious diseases in the world. About 1.6 million people worldwide lost their lives to the disease in 2021, and it is considered a public health crisis because of its ability to resist powerful drugs. With the application of four powerful antibiotics, TB can be cured in 4-6 months; but in the case of drug resistance, it can take up to two years with very expensive and often toxic drugs.