Arrest warrant issued for Tacoma woman who refuses TB treatment
A Tacoma woman who has refused treatment for tuberculosis for more than a year is expected to be arrested and detained in isolation at the Pierce County Jail as soon as Friday.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Philip Soresen originally held the woman in contempt last week, issuing a civil arrest warrant after months of mounting court orders against her. Court records show that warrant was upheld Thursday afternoon, following yet another hearing in the case – the latest in more than a dozen.
For more than a year, officials with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department have been trying unsuccessfully to convince the woman to get life-saving treatment.
Involuntary detention is a rare move that health officials wanted to avoid, but stressed was “necessary to prevent serious harm and imminent risk to the health and safety of others,” according to court documents.
The woman’s reason for refusing treatment has not been disclosed, with her attorney and court records citing HIPAA protections. She did begin treatment at one point but stopped before it was complete, court records show.
TB is deadly and contagious, but curable with medication. The U.S. does not typically vaccinate people for the disease. Pierce County sees about 20 active cases per year.
This is only the third time in two decades that health officials have sought a court order to detain someone refusing treatment. Nigel Turner, the health department’s division director for Communicable Disease Control, said in a release earlier this week that detaining anyone is a “last possible resort.”
“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,” he said. “After 15 court hearings, we are closing in on our last option.”
Thursday’s proceedings upped that hearing tally to 17. In a filing released before court convened, the woman’s attorney argued it’s unclear whether her client has willfully and intentionally defied the court’s repeated orders to isolate and seek treatment for the disease.
The records vaguely cite “past behavior and interactions,” and suggest the possibility that she might not comprehend or fully understand the significance of the proceedings. They also specifically cite times when the woman has “spoken out of turn with rapid, disorganized speech” in court.
“She has repeatedly threatened suicide,” records state, in relationship to being served the court orders, and “has not acknowledged the existence of her own medical condition.”
The woman’s attorney also argued that the Pierce County Jail doesn’t meet the state’s legal standard for long-term detention and treatment of a TB patient.
“Though Pierce County Jail may have plans in place for the incidental individual who turns out to be infected after booking on an unrelated matter, this does not mean it is equipped to handle long term inpatient care for persons solely committed for that purpose,” the filing stated.
But Judge Sorensen sided with the health department, issuing the warrant in a ruling Thursday afternoon.
In a statement to KNKX Thursday afternoon, health department spokesperson Kenny Via said the warrant issued by the court “will authorize law enforcement to detain her on or following Friday, March 3 and take her to a facility equipped for isolation, testing and treatment.”
“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 statement reads.
A Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman previously told KOMO News that the jail is equipped with “negative pressure rooms,” that isolate airflow to prevent the spread of infection.
Another hearing in the case is scheduled for April 7.
The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is a hotline for individuals in crisis or for those looking to help someone else. To speak with a trained listener, call 988. Visit 988lifeline.org for crisis chat services or for more information.
Learn more about tuberculosis (TB) infections in Pierce County at tpdch.org.