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County isolates tuberculosis patient who refused treatment

LAWRENCEVILLE - A September court date is set to determine whether a 17-year-old with tuberculosis will be released from confinement at the Gwinnett County Jail.

Francisco Santos was placed in an isolated cell in the jail's infirmary Friday night following reports that the 17-year-old had the pulmonary disease and was refusing treatment. Santos' TB was discovered when he went to the hospital complaining of fever, weight loss and coughing up blood - common symptoms of the disease.

"On Friday, Aug. 24 the Department of Public Health was notified by Gwinnett Medical Center that the subject had been diagnosed with active, contagious pulmonary tuberculosis," said Gwinnett County Health Department spokesman Vernon Goins. "We were told that he was refusing treatment and said he would leave the country, and that's what brought the Board of Health into play."

After consulting with local and state TB departments, a court order was filed to isolate Santos, who was deemed a flight risk and a health threat in the community.

"The isolation protocol, while it is very, very rare, it is procedure in Gwinnett County," Goins said.

While the Sheriff's Department's Web site lists Santos as being charged with contempt of court, health officials maintain the actions surrounding Santos are not criminal.

"This is not a criminal procedure, he has not been charged," Goins said.

Helen Ellis, a registered nurse and interim director of epidemiology for the Board of Health, interviewed Santos Saturday and said it is unclear why the 17-year-old and his mother refused medical treatment Friday, but she said the teen is cooperating and taking the recommended medications.

While Goins said more than 500 cases of TB are reported in Georgia each year, this is the first case of court-ordered TB isolation since the mid-90s.

Board of Health CEO Dr. Lloyd M. Hofer said the board is trying to determine who the 17-year-old may have been in contact with and testing those people for the disease.

Hofer said eight people in Santos' immediate family have been tested and do not seem to be showing signs of the disease. He said a search for others that could have been infected by Santos is under way.

"There are eight that we know of that he has been in contact with and we may identify more," Hofer said. He confirmed the 17-year-old worked as a day laborer and was not currently enrolled in any schools where children could have been infected.

Dr. Michael Leonard, director of the Georgia Tuberculosis Unit, said most TB patients are treated for six to 12 months.

Leonard said Santos is currently being treated and monitored at the jail and could be released as early as next week.

"You have to keep in mind I'm not his treating physician, but he has TB, he's on observed therapy and he should do well," Leonard said.

Goins said a Sept. 5 court date has been set for Board of Health officials to make suggestions to a Gwinnett Superior Court judge.

If released, Santos will be required to continue taking medications and to wear a mask to prevent spreading the disease.

A similar incident set off an international health scare when Atlanta lawyer Andrew Speaker, who also has tuberculosis, set off for his wedding in Greece.

Gwinnett officials acknowledged the recent incident and said their efforts this weekend have been to prevent similar incidents.