Some former Ramsey County Workhouse inmates have filed a class-action lawsuit alleging that the county didn't properly test an inmate who was infected with tuberculosis, which led to other inmates getting infected with the disease.

The suit, filed in U.S. District Court, claims Ramsey County corrections staff "knew of and disregarded an obvious and serious risk" to the health of those in the workhouse and "acted with deliberate indifference in violation of the eighth and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution."

At least 80 former inmates and about 30 county employees were later found to have TB, according to the complaint.

The inmate was screened for TB, but didn't show up as positive, said Darwin Lookingbill, an assistant county attorney. It was later that the symptoms showed up, he said.

"Once they identified it, they isolated him," Lookingbill said. "I think we did what we were supposed to do."

Minnesota law requires that inmates of the state's correctional facilities be screened for TB within the first 14 days of detention or confinement and that employees get tested yearly and before employment.

There are two types of tuberculosis: active disease and latent infection.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health:

TB is caused by a bacterium, mycobacterium tuberculosis, and can affect any part of the body, although it's most common in the lungs. It can spread when someone with active TB in the lungs coughs, sneezes or talks and others breathe in the bacteria. Only people with active TB can spread it to others, and people generally need to be in close contact for many hours for transmission.

People with latent TB have a 10 percent probability of getting the full blown disease if they don't get treated, said Kris Ehresmann of the state health department. "We take that seriously," she said. Treatment usually involves a 9-month medicine regimen.

Between 30 and 35 people with active TB are treated each year in Ramsey County and about 700 people are treated with latent TB.

According to the lawsuit:

An unidentified inmate was admitted to the workhouse on April 17 and had active TB, which was not detected by county staff. The inmate showed "obvious signs and symptoms" of TB, such as a cough, weight loss and fatigue. Other inmates complained about the person's health to the staff, and 20 people signed their names seeking action.

They were told the inmate had "smoker's cough."

The infected inmate was not segregated from the other inmates or given treatment. Some inmates who shared a living space with the infected inmate were moved to other areas, exposing more people.

The infected inmate was removed from the workhouse the night before his scheduled release date.

One named defendant was infected with active TB, while eight other named defendants got latent infections.

The county later tested more than 300 people, inmates and correctional employees, who were in the workhouse between April 14 and June 9. Six people tested positive for active TB, and 104 people tested positive for latent TB, the lawsuit said.

The inmates are seeking unspecified money damages and an order requiring changes in the policies and procedures of the workhouse regarding the training of corrections and medical staff.

"Occasionally individuals will contract a disease, but there are supposed to be procedures to make sure it doesn't become epidemic and rampant," said Robert Bennett, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542