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Downtown L.A. TB outbreak: LAPD urges officers to wear masks

February 25, 2013 |  1:51 pm

Los Angeles police over the weekend warned officers who patrol the skid row area to wear protective masks and minimize face-to-face contact with suspects or the public if there is reason to believe that they are infected with tuberculosis.

The warning, contained in an internal communication to officers and employees in the department's Central Division, comes after The Times reported that public health officials have launched a new, coordinated effort to contain what they are calling the largest TB outbreak in a decade.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have dispatched scientists to Los Angeles to help local health officials gain a better understanding why TB is spreading and strategies on how to stop it.

Public health officials are searching for more than 4,500 people who may have been exposed to the disease. In all, nearly 80 tuberculosis cases have been identified and 11 people have died since 2007, most of them homeless people who live in and around skid row.

Scientists have recently linked the outbreak to a tuberculosis strain that is unique to Los Angeles, with a few isolated cases outside the area.

Tuberculosis is easily passed along. It is contracted by inhaling droplets from infected patients when they sneeze, cough or laugh. When left untreated, the disease can be deadly. The skid row strain can be treated by all anti-TB medications. Treatment lasts six to nine months. 

LAPD officers who patrol the area have long been warned to be on the lookout for people on the street who exhibit symptoms of communicable diseases which include Hepatitis to HIV and staph infections to drug-resistant TB. Officers must also contend with individuals who have parasitic conditions like scabies and lice.

While noting that risk to law enforcement from TB is "very small," the internal communique nonetheless warns employees to take precautions to reduce the chance of exposure.

"If you have reason to believe that you have been exposed to a person with TB, notify a supervisor immediately," the email from Capt. Michael Oreb said. "MSD [The City's Medical Services Division] will test any employee who has been occupationally exposed."

The email also recommends that officers carry protective masks them with them into the field and don them "if officers have reason to believe an individual is infected with TB."

Capt. Horace Frank, commanding officer of Central Division, would not comment specifically on the email but said the issue had been brought up in roll calls.

"Keep in mind that we’ve always stressed to our officers the importance of proper hygiene and conducting business in a safe and healthy manner," Frank said. "This is just a reminder for us to continue exercising the same precautions which we’ve exercised in the past. The key is that we continue to go about doing the job we have sworn to do, which is to protect and serve the public."

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 -- Andrew Blankstein

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