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Impact of 2021 Tuberculosis in Prison Outbreak Persists, Prompts Health Department Advisory

14 Dec 2023, Jail News, by

A 2021 tuberculosis in prison outbreak prompts ongoing concerns, with over 800 released prisoners potentially unaware of exposure in WA.

Impact of 2021 Tuberculosis in Prison Outbreak Persists, Prompts Health Department Advisory - Inmate Lookup

In an advisory released on Wednesday, the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department encouraged tuberculosis (TB) testing for those who have served time in prison because the disease’s effects from a 2021 outbreak may still be present.

The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) and Department of Corrections (DOC) have identified 2,900 potentially exposed contacts and 28 individuals with active tuberculosis since July 2021. But more than eight hundred people were released from prisons before it was determined that they had contracted tuberculosis, and many of them were never tested or contacted.

When an infected person coughs or sneezes, they spread TB through the air; however, TB is less likely to spread than the cold or flu, requiring multiple exposures over a prolonged period within a confined space for infection to occur.

Individuals at an elevated risk of infection include those traveling to regions with a higher TB prevalence and those working in settings like homeless shelters and nursing homes, where exposure is more probable. Correctional facilities involving individuals in prolonged contact have experienced a notable uptick in TB cases.

Contrary to the period from 2014 to 2020 when no TB cases were reported in Washington state prisons, 2021 witnessed the state’s first recorded TB outbreak within the Washington Department of Corrections (WADOC), marking the most significant outbreak in Washington in two decades.

Health authorities attribute the outbreak to the suspension of annual TB testing, lasting up to two years in certain instances, as resources were diverted to COVID-19 measures by the DOC. Additionally, the overlap in symptoms between TB and COVID-19 contributed to delayed detection.

In 2021, Washington reported 199 TB cases, indicating a 22% surge from the previous year. The Puget Sound region, particularly King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties, bore the brunt of most cases.

Tuberculosis disproportionately affects vulnerable populations in the state, with an average of five cases diagnosed weekly. After a decade of decreasing diagnosis rates, incident rates rose, aligning with the trend observed nationwide. In 2022, Washington reported 251 TB cases, according to the Department of Health.

In a separate incident in September 2023, Public Health – Seattle & King County recommended the evaluation of 135 individuals for tuberculosis following the diagnosis of an active TB case in a community member from Kentridge High School.