A Santa Barbara County farmworker accused of failing to complete treatment for tuberculosis and infecting dozens of people may have to sit in jail until he no longer poses a public health threat.
Feliciano Morelos, 19, was booked March 30 into Santa Barbara County Jail on suspicion of disobeying an order from a public health officer, a misdemeanor charge.
Authorities said Morelos escaped from quarantine twice last year and that keeping him in jail -- in a cell outfitted with special air filters so that fellow inmates don't breathe the same air -- is necessary to ensure that he completes his medical regimen and is no longer contagious.
Morelos, a laborer from the Mexican state of Oaxaca, is being held in lieu of $20,000 bail and is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday. Immigration authorities are also detaining Morelos, but no information was available about his legal status.
Federal and state authorities have broad powers to quarantine or detain people -- including foreign citizens -- if they are ill with a contagious disease and they resist treatment. Patients who appear in hospital emergency rooms with tuberculosis, for instance, can be arrested if they try to leave against medical advice.
"This is absolutely a last resort," said Dr. Frank Alvarez, deputy health officer in Santa Barbara County. "Rarely do we have individuals that just can't adhere to our management."
Morelos was diagnosed last May during a routine jail screening after he was arrested in Santa Maria on suspicion of drunken driving and driving without a license, Alvarez said.
A subsequent investigation by public health workers revealed that Morelos had infected at least 56 others, mostly family members and former housemates. The infected individuals were found in a handful of other California counties and as far away as Washington state.
Alvarez said in nine of those cases, the infected parties developed full-blown tuberculosis, an airborne disease that can cause severe coughing, weight loss and even death. Five of the cases involved children, he said.
Once a leading cause of death in the United States, tuberculosis can now be treated, and in most cases cured, with a combination of drugs. All of those infected by Morelos have been treated or are undergoing treatment and responding well to the therapy, Alvarez said.
"The extent of the outbreak was quite significant," said Alvarez, noting that state health workers and public health employees from other counties were mobilized to help contain the spread of the disease. "It was certainly one of the worst [outbreaks] we've had in recent history."
After his release from jail, Morelos was placed in a Santa Maria motel where caseworkers could monitor his medical treatment, but he abandoned that program last May, Alvarez said. He was later arrested for disobeying a public health directive, and a judge ordered that he be quarantined in a facility in the Los Angeles County community of Acton. But Morelos skipped out of that program in June.
In fact, Morelos was at large for nearly a year until he was stopped by police last month in Delano for a traffic violation. Now he is in a specially equipped Santa Barbara jail cell, getting regular doctors' visits and taking medication to put the disease in check.
A public defender representing Morelos could not be reached for comment. Santa Barbara County Deputy Dist. Atty. Brian Cota said he would ask a judge to keep Morelos behind bars until he no longer posed a public health risk.
"It can take anywhere from six to nine months until he is not contagious," Cota said. "I want to do whatever the health department thinks would be best in this situation."
Alvarez said it would have been best if Morelos had completed tuberculosis treatment when he had first been diagnosed, because he would have been cured by now.
"This kind of situation is rare, but it happens," Alvarez said. "Sometimes you have to use your authority to protect the greater good."