5 tuberculosis cases may be linked

More than 80 staff and clients of Compass Health in Everett have been screened for tuberculosis after health officials discovered that five TB cases, including two deaths, may be linked.

The first tuberculosis death occurred in 2010 when a man died in a Snohomish County hospital.

A second death occurred earlier this year. The man had lived in Everett but died in a King County hospital.

A third tuberculosis patient remains hospitalized in Snohomish County, but is expected to recover. Health officials said DNA tests showed that all three had the same strain of the disease.

Two other patients are being treated at home for active cases of the disease, said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District. Tests are being conducted to see if they, too, have the same tuberculosis strain.

The hospitalized patient as well as two other people being treated at home were all Compass Health clients.

Compass Health is a nonprofit organization that provides mental health services in Snohomish, Island, San Juan and Skagit counties.

There’s little risk of people becoming ill who don’t have a connection to the Compass cases, Goldbaum said. “The risk is really to those who have been in close and prolonged contact,” he said.

People can spread the disease for up to four weeks after they begin taking several types antibiotics to treat the disease, Goldbaum said. The patients are expected to continue an antibiotic regimen for about six months.

Most of the potential contacts already have been screened, Goldbaum said.

The screenings of 82 Compass Health staff and clients are being conducted on people who work or obtain services at its building at 3322 Broadway.

“We know that there were individuals who were coming and going out of that building that apparently had tuberculosis,” said Tom Sebastian, Compass’ chief executive.

Sebastian said that he was told of the possible exposure at the Broadway building when he met with health district officials on Sept. 19.

A variety of mental health services are based at the Broadway building. About 100 people come to the center every day for a peer recovery program, he said.

Individual and group outpatient mental health services as well as a medical clinic also are based there, he said.

Sebastian said his organization has been cooperating fully with the health district to identify and screen people who may be at risk.

The links between at least three and possibly five local tuberculosis cases don’t mean that they’re more severe, just that they had a common contact, Goldbaum said.

Health officials were able to find the link because tests from tuberculosis patients are sent to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for genetic typing, Goldbaum said. It can take several months for the testing to be completed.

As new cases come in, scientists check a registry to see if there are matches with other reported cases, Goldbaum said.

Federal and state health officials notified the health district that there was a genetic match between the cases of the two men who died, even though their deaths were two years apart.

“That’s what allowed us, two years after the first case, to start making a connection and identify a population that had been placed at risk,” Goldbaum said.

It’s not uncommon for health officials to find and identify two or more cases of the same tuberculosis strain, even if they’re separated by several years, said Donn Moyer, a spokesman for the state Department of Health.

“That’s happening more and more as the science gets better,” he said.

The health district has contacted hospitals and medical clinics in Snohomish County asking them to be on the alert for possible tuberculosis cases. Symptoms include a cough that lasts more than three weeks, fever, night sweats, chest pain and blood in the sputum.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com

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