Restaurant employee with hepatitis A says she did not handle food

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The Florida Department of Health Hillsborough County reports hundreds of people have gotten a hepatitis A vaccine after potential exposure from an employee at the Sandpiper Grille in Sun City Center.

Last week, health officials reported that an employee tested positive for the highly contagious disease that affects the liver. They urged anyone who ate or drank at the restaurant between March 20 and 24 to get the vaccine right away if they haven't previously.

According to health officials, "Hepatitis A usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food, or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person. Hepatitis A can also spread from close personal contact with an infected person such as through sex or caring for someone who is ill. Contamination of food (this can include frozen and undercooked food) by hepatitis A virus can happen at any point: growing, harvesting, processing, handling, and even after cooking."

Hepatitis A includes symptoms such as jaundice, fever, diarrhea, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain.

The employee who claims to have contracted hepatitis A talked to FOX 13 News by phone. She says she was a manager-in-training at the time of potential exposure, not a food handler. She believes she may have contracted it through counting money and licking her fingers.

The owner of Sandpiper Grille, Michael Madden said that since learning the news, he required that all employees be vaccinated. Business has taken a major hit. After a slow weekend, Madden wants to assure customers there's no need to be scared and hopes they'll come back.

Madden also claims the employee only handled money and receipts during the five-day period. But DOH issued a new statement Tuesday, insisting the woman did indeed handle food.

"An epidemiologic investigation takes place for every positive hepatitis A lab. Part of that investigation involves interviews with restaurant staff and management," the statement explained. "During the investigation at Sandpiper Grill in Sun City Center, it was confirmed that the worker handled food as part of their work duties during this timeframe. Additionally, during the investigation food handling practices that could have potentially exposed patrons to hepatitis A were found."

Since last week, the DOH-Hillsborough has been offering free vaccines to those who believe they were exposed. 

"If you were potentially exposed and you were to actually contract the virus, you have about 14 days to vaccinate to prevent the disease from progressing. Once you turn symptomatic, the vaccine isn't going to work," said Ryan Pedigo from DOH-Hillsborough.

Pedigo said that they went out and visited the restaurant, observing things like hand washing and general hygiene practices. 

"It's not a question of the facility, it's a question of an individual who was sick and happened to be working in the facility," Pedigo said.

The waiting room Monday evening at the Joyce Ely Health Center in Ruskin was busy with customers heeding the warning. Nearly 300 lined up for free shots Saturday.

Richard Hochfelder and his wife showed up for theirs Monday evening.

"To avoid the problem, we are coming out here, getting shots," Hochfelder said.

Both enjoyed their meals at Sandpiper Grille. In fact, they dined two days in a row. Then, the Department of Health delivered the un-appetizing news.

In good spirits, Hochfelder marched out saying, "I got a shot, I didn't faint, and I'll live. So, here we are. All done and over with."

DOH-Hillsborough is offering the vaccine weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Sulphur Springs Health Complex, located at 8605 Mitchell Ave, Tampa, FL 33604, for free to those who may have been exposed. 

A hotline has been set up for people who may have questions. The number to call is (813) 307-8004.