Refugees and tuberculosis: After Fargo commissioner expresses fears, other officials offer perspective

FARGO — City Commissioner Dave Piepkorn proposed this week to cut off refugee resettlement in Fargo after airing concerns about local refugees who carry tuberculosis. His proposal floundered after other commissioners did not support it.



We talked with health and refugee resettlement officials about TB, a potentially serious infectious bacterial disease that mainly affects the lungs, and got some perspective on the issue.

In 2018, Cass County had 133 cases of latent TB. Those are cases in which someone carries TB, but isn't contagious. Of those 133, 24 were refugees. There were also five active cases of TB, none of which were refugees.

Monday's City Commission meeting took a contentious turn after Piepkorn called for a stop to refugee resettlement in Fargo. "People will die," he said. His concern appeared to be with the 24 refugees carrying latent TB.

Desi Fleming, public health director for Fargo Cass Public Health, explained why people with latent TB are not considered a threat. "Someone with latent tuberculosis can not spread the disease to others," she told WDAY-TV. She said anyone with latent TB would be watched closely and caught before they posed a health risk.

"People with latent TB have no restrictions. They are being followed medically. They're on treatment, and the treatment kills the germs inside the body," Fleming said.

Still, Piepkorn was concerned that any refugees with TB were allowed into North Dakota. He appeared to be worried about latent cases turning active. "It can happen at any time," he said during Monday's meeting.

Fleming said it would be unlikely that would go unnoticed. "If it was to develop into active disease, we'd be right on top of that and be able to respond to that," she said.

Shirley Dykshoorn of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota, the local agency contracted by the federal government to resettle refugees, said all refugees are screened overseas for diseases before coming to the U.S.

"They would not be able to travel if they had active TB. Period," Dykshoorn said. "It's very prescriptive. There's a protocol that needs to be followed."

In the past, Piepkorn has been vocal about the cost of resettling refugees in Fargo and has demanded audits of Lutheran Social Services. We reached out to Piepkorn to see if he had any further comment, but did not hear back.