Floridians were surprised — and anxious — when Florida Politics reported an employee who worked in food preparation for a Tampa-area grocery store contracted hepatitis A, but customers were not told of the state’s investigation or the store’s emergency procedures.
However, despite a growing number of public warnings about hepatitis scares in Florida restaurants, new information from the state’s department of health indicates it does not alert the public to most of its hepatitis investigations in local restaurants and grocery stores. A state spokesperson says their notifications follow the guidance of the CDC and FDA follow a thorough, multi-agency investigation.
“If everything is in compliance (at the food establishment), or (the infected employee) did not work while contagious, there is little to no threat to customers,” said Florida DOH spokesperson Emerson George. “If there is any evidence of noncompliance, the department would issue a ‘patron notification’ news release to inform customers that they may have been exposed to hepatitis A.”
The DOH reported more hepatitis A cases in the first five months of 2019 than it did in the previous five years combined. According to George, of the 1,613 identified cases so far this year, 71 (4.4 percent) have been in individuals who prepare or serve food. Thirteen of the cases have generated patron notifications.
However, George says the DOH has not identified a single case of hepatitis A transmission from a food worker to a restaurant patron.
Tampa Bay is ground zero for the epidemic, with cases of the liver virus particularly prevalent in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, and Hernando counties. The state has ensured every county health department has free vaccines available, and it recommends food workers and individuals at higher risk of contracting the disease take advantage of the service.
“This is a preventable disease and the best way to avoid it is through vaccination, which DOH offers for free, and good hygiene,” George added.