Freedom of choice versus the public good: the case of the tuberculosis woman of Tacoma

There is a woman that has been walking around Tacoma with an active tuberculosis case for more than a year. No, that is not a joke.

The decades-old debate over the right to privacy in healthcare is ongoing with heated arguments from both sides. On one hand, there is an argument that specific health issues should be a matter of public record, while the other side hotly disagrees with any potential infringement on individual civil liberties. Both sides have reasonable arguments.

If you had asked me last year what side of the debate I was on, I would have wholeheartedly argued that everyone has a right to privacy when it comes to what type of illnesses they are dealing with and how they choose to treat them (and before you ask, yes, I am militantly pro-vaccine). However, the case of the tuberculosis woman of Tacoma has prompted me to reconsider my stance on healthcare privacy when it comes to certain issues that threaten the public as a whole, like freaking tuberculosis.

You should know that there is a woman who lives in Tacoma who has an active case of tuberculosis (TB). TB is a highly contagious bacterial disease that affects the lungs and is spread through breathing, coughing, sneezing and talking. It’s an extremely serious disease and is fatal if left untreated. It used to be known as ‘consumption’ and has killed tens of millions over the course of history. It is especially dangerous for individuals who have lung complications such as vaping or smoking habits, COPD, cystic fibrosis or long COVID-19 symptoms. TB rates in the United States have steadily decreased since the ‘90s, with only 8,300 cases reported in 2022. Unfortunately for us, the tuberculosis woman of Tacoma is one of those cases.

So far, the tuberculosis woman of Tacoma has successfully evaded treatment, despite the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s most valiant efforts. They have released several reports, notifying the public of the issue and even stating that they were working with her family to convince her to seek treatment. The Tacoma Pierce County Health Department has even gone as far as to work with the Tacoma Police Department, issuing a civil arrest warrant for detention and home quarantine. Somehow, the woman managed to evade the authorities, boarded a public bus and headed on down to the Emerald Queen Casino for some entertainment and relaxation. This selfish action exposed thousands of people in Tacoma to tuberculosis. 

I’m really dying to know her reasoning. Treatment consists of several months of a rigorous antibiotics regimen, which may be stressful, but to me, seems far better than slowly suffocating to death. She must be so uncomfortable. 

I also want to know who she is. I know that revealing her identity would be a violation of civil liberties and would set a horrible precedent for healthcare privacy as a whole. However, I feel like I also have the right to know if the person next to me on the bus is needlessly exposing me to tuberculosis. It’s a frustrating gray area with no “right” decision.