Hepatitis A precautions urged as more Louisville businesses affected

Hepatitis A vaccine | Courtesy National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases

With Kentucky Derby Festival events on the horizon, Louisville health officials are urging food service establishments to be especially vigilant about preventing the spread of hepatitis A as more incidents at Louisville businesses crop up.

The Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness announced Friday that customers of a Kroger store at 520 N. 35th St. and the Sarino restaurant at 1030 Goss Ave. may have been exposed to hepatitis A. That’s a virus that can infect the liver, leading to mild to severe illness.

The potential exposures occurred between March 2 and 19 at the Kroger, and Feb. 24 through March 15 at Sarino — the latest two food service establishments to be hit by the ongoing hepatitis A outbreak.

Previous exposures were reported at the Kroger at 4915 Dixie Highway and a St. Matthews Denny’s restaurant at 4030 Dutchmans Lane.

The incidents are part of an outbreak in Louisville that has led to at least 159 cases, most of them among the homeless population and people who use drugs, according to local health officials. One Louisville patient who tested positive for hepatitis A died, according to Public Health and Wellness.

The state Department for Public Health declared a statewide outbreak in November.

“The best ways to prevent hepatitis A infection are to get vaccinated and to practice good hand washing,” said Dr. Lori Caloia, medical director of Public Health and Wellness. “Washing your hands thoroughly and often with warm water and soap, especially before preparing meals or eating, after using the bathroom or changing a diaper is a proven way to prevent the spread of diseases.”

Employees at Portland Kroger and the Sarino restaurant are being vaccinated, and Kroger is donating 100 doses of the vaccine to assist with curtailing the outbreak, Caloia noted in a news release.

“We encourage other businesses to either donate vaccine or immunize their employees against hepatitis A,” she said.

Dr. Sarah Moyer, director of the Louisville Metro Department of Public Health and Wellness. | Photo courtesy of Metro Government

People who use drugs may seek part-time work at places like food-service establishments, leading to the potential for hepatitis A spread, said Dr. Sarah Moyer, Public Health and Wellness director. The virus typically is transmitted through the fecal-oral route when someone puts a contaminated object, food or drink in their mouth.

The department and its partners have given free shots to about 8,000 high-risk people (homeless individuals and drug users) at places like homeless shelters, sober living houses and the syringe exchange recently. Most other people “have a much smaller chance of being infected,” Moyer said.

Members of the public who want to get the hepatitis A vaccine should check with a vaccine provider, such as their doctor or primary care provider. Others include Walgreens, Rite Aid, University of Louisville Pharmacy, and Kroger (their pharmacies or the Little Clinic).

Meanwhile, the local health department is urging food-service establishments to stress good hygiene, sanitation and vaccination among their staffs as Derby and spring-event season nears. A notice went out this week in the Healthy Hometown newsletter urging such precautions.

“Because of the potential spread in food workers, we’re doing some (targeted) messaging just to food workers about making sure … they’re vaccinated and they’re following good hand hygiene,” Moyer said.

Also, with a lot of food vendors coming into town for Derby, “we just want to make sure that they are all vaccinated and are following our normal, proper hand-hygiene procedures with food handling before they get here,” she said.

Public Health and Wellness said there have been no confirmed cases of customers getting hepatitis A from the potential exposures at Kroger and elsewhere. But people should keep an eye out for symptoms, such as fatigue, decreased appetite, stomach pain, pale stools and yellowing of the skin or eyes.

Food service establishments that want to get their employees vaccinated can contact Ruth Carrico of the University of Louisville’s Global Health Center at (502) 852-1324.

With spring entertainment events about to begin, the health department also is working with others, such as the Kentucky Derby Festival, to make sure hand-washing stations are available with portable restrooms, Moyer said.

There also are plans to disseminate fliers throughout the city to drive home the importance of hand washing, she said.

Moyer reminds local parents that hepatitis A vaccination will be required for school this fall. “Check your kids vaccine records and if they don’t have hep A (immunization), it’s a really good time to get that vaccine.”