ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (FOX 13) - Restaurant owners and workers across the Bay Area are worried after numerous reports of food service workers being diagnosed with hepatitis A over the past few months.
The most recent case was reported in Hernando County, where an employee at a country club potentially exposed hundreds of people, some high-schoolers who attended proms at the venue.
And hundreds went to get vaccinated Wednesday after hearing about the case at the Silverthorn Country Club in Spring Hill, Florida. The club recently hosted a number of proms and an Easter brunch.
"This is something preventable, so this is disgusting," said Cathy Czyr, a Spring Hill resident.
Reports of hepatitis A at two Tarpon Springs restaurants, including a Taco Bell on US Highway 19, have Pinellas County residents concerned.
While the Pinellas County Health Department will not confirm the reports, a spokesperson for Taco Bell released a statement confirming the rumors:
“As soon as the operator of this Tarpon Springs, FL location learned from the Pinellas County Health Department that one of the team members had been diagnosed, the franchisee began working closely with Taco Bell and health officials. The restaurant was immediately thoroughly sanitized and all team members were vaccinated. The safety of our customers and team members is our highest priority; we take this very seriously.”
However, the Pinellas County Health Department says residents' fear may be premature.
"Our job is to protect the community from acquiring things like infectious diseases such as hepatitis A. We look at things like where [the employee] worked in the restaurant, if they were infectious during the time they were working," said Dr. Ulyee Choe with the Pinellas County Health Department.
Under Florida law, after inspecting a restaurant the health department will only inform the public of a hepatitis A incident if they feel customers may be at risk.
"If they don't rise to that criteria, it's not deemed a public health threat, and the risk to the public is minimal," said Dr. Choe.
While the focus has been placed on restaurants and their employees spreading the virus, the real risk factor lies among those who might not have easy access to basic hygiene.
"What we're seeing here in this current rise in hepatitis A is that it's related more to other high-risk groups, specifically drug users and homelessness," said Dr. Choe. "The majority of food handlers infected with hepatitis A don't transmit it to the patrons."
While the diagnosis may seem alarming, the solution is simple.
"There's a vaccine available. It's very safe and with two doses it confers a lifetime immunity," said Dr. Tanya Bogle with ForCare Medical Center.
The preventative measures are even easier.
"Handwashing technique is crucial to everyone staying healthy," said Dr. Bogle.
If you feel you may have been exposed to the virus, doctors say it is best to get your first dose of the vaccine as soon as possible.