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Tuberculosis Outbreak Exposed Weak Washington DOC Response

Washington’s Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) issued an advisory to healthcare providers on December 13, 2023, to test for tuberculosis in anyone incarcerated by the state Department of Corrections (DOC) during an outbreak of the disease in 2021. Over 800 people were released from prison before officials identified their exposure to TB, and many still have not been notified or tested.

            Washington state prisons had no tuberculosis cases from 2014 to 2020, when COVID-19 disrupted the system’s healthcare protocols. The outbreak reported in 2021 then became the state’s largest in 20 years. Thousands of prisoners were unknowingly exposed to the highly infectious disease. As it spread beyond prison walls, at least 28 people were infected and 2,900 more exposed. Many may be still carrying the disease.

DOC spokesperson Chris Wright said the outbreak was caused by suspending annual TB testing during the pandemic. Prisoners known to have had tuberculosis in the past were normally tested for TB on their birthday. A five-year absence of tuberculosis cases and overlapping symptoms with COVID-19 compounded delays in detecting cases. DOC leadership acknowledged the seriousness of the outbreak but defended their efforts to implement testing and prevention measures afterward.

Dennis Oya said he was patient zero of that TB outbreak. A Native American, he had contracted the disease at age 18, and it escalated into active disease in late 2019 while he was housed at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. He described his symptoms to an epidemiologist as “coughing hysterically.” In fact, he fractured three ribs from cough compression yet struggled to receive proper diagnosis and treatment.

Oya was then transferred to Stafford Creek Corrections Center, where he believes he unknowingly transmitted TB to several others, including Andrew Lagerquist and Jesus Ancheta, his cellmates at different points. All three described delayed diagnoses, inadequate medical care, and harsh isolation conditions during treatment. Oya, Lagerquist, and Ancheta eventually cleared the TB from their bodies but suffer ongoing health issues due to the delayed treatment.

The state Department of Labor and Industries fined DOC $84,000 for safety violations that exacerbated the outbreak, as PLN reported. [See: PLN, Nov. 2022, p.36.] Inspectors found prison guards did not receive proper training and testing for their N-95 respirators, leaving them exposed to the contagious disease. However, no compensation was offered to affected prisoners.


Sources: The Chronicle, KING, The Nation


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