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Washington experiencing largest tuberculosis outbreak in 20 years

Symptoms of tuberculosis can be very similar to COVID-19, and if they go untreated, they are likely to become more severe.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — The Washington State Department of Health (DOH) is on heightened alert not just for COVID-19 but also for tuberculosis as cases rise in the state as well as globally.

The rise of tuberculosis (TB) in the state became pronounced in 2021 when 199 cases were reported, a 22% increase from the previous year. Most of these cases were reported in the Puget Sound region, with King, Pierce and Snohomish counties being the hardest hit.

As of Thursday, there have already been 70 cases of TB reported throughout Washington state in 2022. 

The DOH said at least 17 new TB cases have connections to each other and state prisons, which makes it the state’s largest outbreak in the last two decades.

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Largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country saw a decrease in tuberculosis (TB) reporting in 2020. Because fewer people were going to the doctor and symptoms of TB and COVID-19 are so similar, the DOH said diagnoses were more difficult to make.

Additionally, strains in the health care system could have caused missed diagnoses while mitigation measures like increased masking could have actually worked to lower the spread of TB, similar to how it helped limit the spread of influenza and other viruses.

“It’s been 20 years since we saw a cluster of TB cases like this,” said Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, Washington State’s chief science officer. “The pandemic has likely contributed to the rise in cases and the outbreak in at least one correctional facility.”

Correctional facilities have seen a particular increase in TB cases likely due to the fact that these settings involve individuals who are exposed to others for a prolonged period of time.

The state Department of Corrections (DOC) said it identified a recent outbreak at the Stafford Creek Correction Center and immediately contacted the DOH and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin working on ways to decrease the spread.

“Testing of staff, and our incarcerated population at Stafford Creek Correction Center continues, which is how these cases were found. We’ll continue to communicate with staff, their incarcerated population and their families as appropriate,” said Dr. MaryAnn Curl, the DOC’s chief medical officer.

Most individuals who become infected with the bacterial infection develop latent TB, the DOH said, which means they won’t have any symptoms and aren’t contagious. An estimated 200,000 people in the state have inactive TB.

Those with active TB can have symptoms that include coughing with or without blood, chest pain, fever, night sweats, weight loss and tiredness.

Health officials say residents can work to prevent TB infection, treat it and cure it. 

The bacteria that causes TB spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, so covering your mouth and nose can go a long way to prevent infection. 

Those at increased risk of infections include those in close contact with a person infected with TB, those who travel to areas where TB is more prevalent and those who work in places like homeless shelters, correctional facilities and nursing homes where TB exposure is more likely.

Antibiotic treatment for TB takes six months at a minimum, the DOH said, with symptoms likely becoming more severe if treatment isn’t diligently followed. Incomplete treatment can also lead to the spread of TB strains that are more resistant to medicine.

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