Utah’s hepatitis A outbreak soars to 118 cases, but health officials hope vaccination campaign will soon halt its spread

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Steven Beach, a registered nurse with the Salt Lake County Health Department, prepares a hepatitis A vaccination dose at a mobile vaccination clinic in Salt Lake City in mid-November. The outbreak has since grown to 118 cases as of this week, centered on Salt Lake City’s homeless population.

Utah’s hepatitis A outbreak continues to grow, but health officials now say they hope an aggressive vaccination campaign will halt it by early spring.

The Utah Department of Health reported this week there have been 118 cases since the outbreak first came to light last spring among Salt Lake City’s homeless population. The tally includes 31 new cases in the past month.

But health officials say they could have the flare-up under control by March, thanks to repeated outreach efforts in areas where the virus is centered. In addition, the state health department recently received a $248,000 grant from Intermountain Healthcare, allowing for the purchase of nearly 9,000 more hepatitis vaccine doses from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The fact we’re only seeing a few cases per week right now, it really speaks volumes to local health departments efforts to vaccinate these [people],” said Jeff Eason, a viral hepatitis epidemiologist with the Utah Department of Health. But Eason added that there continue to be “some really big challenges” reaching some homeless groups around Salt Lake County.

Utah is one of three hepatitis outbreaks around the country, along with California and Michigan. It’s believed Utah’s first outbreak-related case traveled here from California in May. In a normal year, the Beehive State sees fewer than five hepatitis A cases.

The viral disease, which inflames the liver, can result in fever, diarrhea, vomiting and yellowing of the skin, but healthy people without drug addictions or other underlying health problems typically recover within weeks. In Utah, more than half of those infected have required hospitalization.

Hepatitis A lives in feces and has spread through the Salt Lake valley’s homeless population due to poor hygiene and unsanitary conditions, officials said. Outside Salt Lake County, the largest number of cases have been 25 in Utah County.

Utah health agencies have administered more than 10,500 vaccine doses so far, and Eason said that once caregivers give out a few thousand more, the virus will have few people to infect and should die off.

“You’ll ultimately get to a point where you vaccinate the vast majority of people in the at-risk category,” said Tom Hudachko, a state health department spokesman.

There are already some positive signs. Spokesman Nicholas Rupp said the Salt Lake County Health Department saw just one new case last week, though he warned the data was still provisional.

County health workers have administered vaccines at several area homeless shelters about two or three times a week of late, Rupp said. While March remains the goal to have the virus wiped out, he said, “it’s too early to say if that’s a realistic hope.”

Intermountain Healthcare stepped in to buy more doses when local health agencies began to run low and the state was unable to secure emergency federal funding, said Mikelle Moore, Intermountain’s senior vice president of community health.

“We didn’t want the state to go without having that [vaccine] supply,” she said.

The current supply should last about three months, Hudachko said — ideally just long enough to get the problem under control.

While this outbreak is the largest Utah has seen in years, it pales in comparison to flare-ups in Michigan and California. More than 40 people have died in those states, with nearly 1,000 more hospitalized since last year. In California, officials in San Diego began opening industrial-sized tents in recent weeks to house the homeless and try to contain the outbreak.

Nobody has died thus far in Utah’s outbreak, though the rate of hospitalization is similarly high.

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