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Florida Expands Vaccination Programs In Response To The Worst Hepatitis A Outbreak In Recent History

Andy Yeoh of National Disaster Medical System in Tuscon prepares an immunization shot for Hepatitis A at a medical camp in Chalmette, La., that was heavily damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Florida is experiencing one of the worst Hepatitis A outbreaks in recent history. The State Department of Health puts the number of cases for this year at 1,466 as of Monday. That’s more than the 1,175 total cases reported in the past 5 years.

Every county has reported at least one case, according to the Florida Department of Health, but Pasco and Pinellas counties account for more than a third of the cases this year. The nonfatal disease affects the liver and is spread through fecal matter, often when people do not properly wash their hands.

Lt. Governor Jeanette Nuñez announced Mondayshe was working alongside the Center for Disease Control and the Florida Department of Public Health to focus efforts on reducing the spread of Hepatitis A. The state is increasing hours at county health departments to increase vaccinations and increasing outreach to the most vulnerable communities.

Lt. Governor Nuñez joined Sundial with Luis Hernandez to discuss the efforts the state is taking to reduce the spread of the disease and what you can do to best protect yourself.

 WLRN: Do we have any sense why this Hepatitis A outbreak in Florida has been worse than in previous years?

Nuñez: Well first and foremost it's really part of a national outbreak. We've seen these numbers grow in every state across the country. And so Florida, being the third largest state in the union, it's no surprise that we would have the types of numbers that we're seeing. But what I believe is most important to recognize is that we're actively working, we're being vigilant on making sure that our communities throughout Florida are working fast and furious to educate the community and to provide them with information.

This is a preventable disease. Good hand hygiene is something that's critical but also vaccinations. In addition to the education and the outreach component, we're also working to provide additional access to communities throughout Florida at a county by county level that will provide additional opportunities for them to go and get the vaccine. We are targeting vulnerable populations such as drug users, homeless populations and also within our county jails. As you know people cycle in and out of that those facilities very quickly. So we're working collaboratively with our sheriffs throughout Florida to make sure that they incorporate vaccination as part of their intake process and also making sure that we are ready to provide additional vaccines.

Why did the Florida Department of Health withhold information from the public about a food worker at a Tampa grocery store that had contracted Hep A?

Well I want to be very clear that the Florida Department of Health as well as the Governor and myself, we understand that our number one responsibility is to protect the public. And we are absolutely doing that. What I believe has been some source of controversy is the notification process. The Florida Department of Health has issued probably upwards of 10 notifications already throughout the past year.

And just in and of itself a food service worker testing positive for Hep A is not necessarily from a CDC standpoint cause to provide a notification. There has to be an additional inspection that takes place that monitors the facility's hygiene, their practices, their protocols, did they use proper hand hygiene techniques and do they have the notification in the restroom? Do they use the plastic gloves in preparation of the food?

So all of those things have to be present for notification to be issued. But we understand very acutely the importance of protecting the public and making sure that they have information that will allow them to then make decisions as it relates to their healthcare and whether or not they want to go and get a vaccine. But we're not hiding anything from the public.

We had a case here in Palm Beach Gardens, a case of a Hep A at Cooper's Hawk winery where a worker was found to have the disease. What about the issue with restaurants and food service beyond just the signs that tell employees they have to wash your hands? What more can the state do in pressing that education and pressing the importance of that?

We want to make sure the state is being as proactive as possible. The Department of Health has inspectors as does the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. So whenever there is a concern by a patron that is reported to one of our one of our organizations they will send inspectors out. We will make sure that we continue to educate. We'll make sure that we continue to provide access to information.

But really from an overall standpoint, 5 percent of our state's Hep a cases of the 1,400 cases you referenced this year has been related to the food service industry. So it's less than 5 percent of the total - it's a small number. But nonetheless even one case is one too many. And so that's why we're continuing to work with the CDC, continuing to be as proactive as possible and really making sure that our ultimate goal of protecting the public is front and center.

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.