In August 2014, Kate O’Brien, a 34-year-old media producer from Brooklyn, found out she was expecting her second child.
She was ecstatic. But this pregnancy didn’t proceed like the first. For the next few months, O’Brien had a cold she couldn’t shake. She woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat. She wanted to blame it on her pregnancy, yet she kept losing weight.
She could barely eat. She coughed up balls of bloody mucus. Her throat burned. None of her doctors could figure out what was wrong.
A physician sent her to Mount Sinai West Hospital in Manhattan in January 2015, when, at five months pregnant, she still couldn’t gain any weight.
“No one likes a skinny pregnant lady,” she said.
O’Brien expected to stay at the hospital overnight. She didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to her 2-year-old, Donny, but she figured she’d be home soon.
She didn’t walk out of the hospital for 75 days.
The doctors at Mount Sinai diagnosed O’Brien with infectious tuberculosis. After a few days in the intensive care unit, she was shifted to a negative-pressure isolation room, which helps contain the infected air. Signs announcing “WARNING: Infectious Disease” were affixed to the room’s airtight set of double doors. And all O’Brien could think about was what this meant for her unborn baby.
The federal policy that governs medical isolation and quarantine in the U.S. applies to just a handful of diseases. Most of them, such as cholera, smallpox and the plague, are vanishingly rare in the U.S. But tuberculosis is not. In 2015, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded 9,563 new cases of TB.
That same year, for the first time since 1992, the number of tuberculosis cases in the U.S. rose, according to the CDC. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia reported more cases in 2015 than they did in 2014. The per-capita rate of tuberculosis cases has plateaued at three infections per 100,000 people.
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