Law enforcement officials in Washington state have finally apprehended a Tacoma woman with tuberculosis who has refused treatment and isolation for over a year and has spent the past several months actively evading the sheriff's department's efforts to execute a civil arrest warrant against her.
She is now being held in the Pierce County Jail, Nigel Turner, division director of Communicable Disease Control for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, said in an update late Thursday.
"She will be housed in a room specially equipped for isolation, testing, and treatment. We are hopeful she will choose to get the life-saving treatment she needs to treat her tuberculosis," he added. He also thanked local law enforcement who "supported public health with this necessary intervention."
Pierce County Sheriff’s spokesperson Sgt. Darren Moss told Ars over email Friday that the woman was taken into custody at her home without incident. "She was transported in a vehicle that had the air separated between the cabin and the back of the vehicle," he added. A press release from the Sheriff's department noted that deputies booked her into "a negative pressure room in the Pierce County Jail where she will get treatment as ordered by a Pierce County Superior Court Judge."
Last last resort
The woman's legal saga dates back to January 2022, when the health department resorted to court orders to try to get her to treat her deadly infection—or at least prevent her from readily spreading it in the community. "The Local Health Officer ordered [the woman] to self-isolate and treat; which she declined to do. [The woman] has not complied with such efforts, has discontinued treatment and is unwilling to resume treatment or voluntarily self-isolate," court documents from January 2022 read.
Pierce County Superior Court Judge Philip Sorensen issued an order of involuntary isolation on January 19, 2022, but it did little good. The woman continued to refuse treatment and isolation, leading to a steady drum of renewed court orders throughout 2022.
In January, the department seemed to hit a breaking point after the woman was involved in a car accident as a passenger—clearly indicating that she was not isolating. She went to an emergency department the next day, complaining of chest pain, and X-rays revealed her tuberculosis infection was progressing. She did not tell the medical staff at the hospital of her infection, and they initially thought she had cancer based on the state of her lungs.
On January 20, Sorensen said that if she didn't finally follow the court orders, she could face electronic home monitoring or possible jail time. That ultimatum was unheeded. On March 2, Sorensen upheld a finding of contempt and issued a civil arrest warrant to have her involuntarily detained in a facility that could safely house her for isolation, testing, and treatment. Turner called the move "the very, very last option."
But even an arrest warrant wasn't enough. The woman began evading law enforcement agents who attempted to execute the warrant safely. Meanwhile, she continued flouting orders to isolate—a law enforcement agent surveilling the woman watched as she took a city bus to go to a local casino. The monthslong effort to apprehend the woman led to some local frustration, with an opinion editor for a local news outlet writing that "the time for excuses has passed."
Tuberculosis is a potentially life-threatening infection caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which often infects the lungs and can spread through the air at close range. The infection killed 1.6 million people in 2021, according to the World Health Organization, and is one of the top infectious disease killers in the world.