Hepatitis A Scare Prompts Confusion In Food Industry Businesses Await Word On Who Needs Inoculations And Who Will Pay For Them
Warnings of a hepatitis A outbreak spread confusion and fear through Spokane’s food service industry Friday.
With the start of the busy holiday season a week away, representatives of Spokane’s biggest industry were unsure whether they should demand their workers get expensive inoculations against the virus.
“Everyone has jumped on the bandwagon, but I’m not sure (health officials) have a plan in place yet,” said Stuart Ellison, president of the Spokane Restaurant and Hospitality Association.
Dr. Kim Thorburn, director of the Spokane Regional Health District, said Friday about 120 diagnosed cases of the virus have prompted her to declare a public health emergency next week - the first in five years.
It’s not certain how many of the 13,000 food service workers in Spokane County will be ordered to get $82 inoculations.
At least two dozen shots were given at area clinics on Friday. The health district received a deluge of calls. Group Health, anticipating a run on inoculations, ordered 200 extra doses.
“I’m finding a lot of support for what I’m calling for,” said Thorburn. “The main thing I need to do is raise the alert. I don’t see a lot of resistance to the problem.”
But the warning left representatives of the food service industry confused.
“The first concern is the consumer, and we need to do everything to build their confidence,” said Ellison. Some restaurateurs find the cost of inoculations prohibitive. Thorburn is unsure who will foot the bill - medical insurers, businesses or the public.
Spokane School District 81 is waiting for direction from health officials before requiring its cooks to get vaccinated.
“We’ll do whatever they recommend to protect the safety of the kids,” said spokeswoman Terren Roloff.
Most restaurants and food factories are taking extra precautions in the interim.
The 15 employees at Just American Desserts were reminded to scrub their hands extra hard and wear gloves.
Owner Eva Roberts called the health emergency a “nightmare,” but wants to know more about the virus before paying $1,260 to get her workers inoculated.
“You want to do the right thing,” said Roberts. “I want to find out more about the disease, how it’s passed.”
Tim Walker, general manager of the Spokane Country Club, was surprised that restaurants weren’t told of the outbreak earlier. “I didn’t realize it was getting to the level of a state of emergency,” he said. He plans to ask the country club’s board of directors for money to cover the shots.
“It almost seems like we hit the red light before we hit the yellow light.”
Thorburn called a meeting for the first week of December to discuss the outbreak with owners of restaurants, bars and food factories. At the meeting, Thorburn said she hopes to learn which employees are most in need of inoculations.
The two-week delay between Thursday’s announcement of the outbreak and the meeting is caused by scheduling conflicts with the businesses, according to business owners.
The county’s last public health emergency was in 1992, called to preserve an AIDS-prevention needle exchange program challenged by former Spokane County Prosecutor Donald Brockett.
Thorburn raised the alarm this week after watching hepatitis A cases dramatically rise - from a normal level of two cases a week to about 14 cases a week in November.
Workers handling food at a Spokane Valley church and a South Hill restaurant were diagnosed within the last month.
Many cases also surfaced among Spokane County Jail inmates and intravenous drug users, Thorburn said.
But health officials have had difficulty isolating the outbreak to individual handlers.
Licensed food handlers are required to attend safety and hygiene classes at the regional health district, the result of a similar outbreak in 1992.
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