New hepatitis A scare comes to Utah County on heels of exposures at Salt Lake County 7-Eleven

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) 7-11

More than 340 people had been referred for hepatitis A vaccinations as of Monday after they recently visited a West Jordan 7-Eleven store where an infected employee handled food — and more referrals are likely after Utah County officials announced Tuesday a possible outbreak there.

The Salt Lake County Health Department has issued an alert that as many as 2,000 customers of the convenience store at 2666 W. 7800 South could have been exposed if they used the restroom there or consumed fountain drinks, fruit or prepared foods from the store’s hot case between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3.

Officials said customers should call a hotline, 385-468-INFO (4636), for vaccine options.

Nearly 500 people called on Monday alone, keeping nine employees busy fielding inquiries throughout the day, said Nicholas Rupp, Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman. Calls continued to come in Tuesday, though Rupp said the volume was lower.

About 130 people had been vaccinated at Salt Lake County immunization clinics, Rupp said Tuesday, and officials hoped others referred would get vaccinated against the viral disease through their own pharmacy or medical provider.

As the amount of calls to Salt Lake County officials waned, Utah County officials prepared for a potential hepatitis A scare — customers of Spanish Fork Olive Garden and Sonic Drive-In restaurants in late December may have been exposed to the disease.

Patrons who ate, drank or used the restroom at the Olive Garden, 1092 N. Canyon Creek Parkway, between Dec. 21 and 30, or at the Sonic Drive-In, 971 N. Main, on Dec. 23 or 24 could have come in contact with hepatitis A, said Aislynn Toman-Hill, Utah County Health Department spokeswoman.

Like at the Salt Lake County 7-Eleven, officials pointed to an infected employee as the cause of the possible outbreak.

Toman-Hill and other Utah County officials spent part of Tuesday evening setting up a website to help those customers assess their risk for contracting the viral disease.

At health.utah.gov/investigation, users fill out a questionnaire about their experiences with the sites in question. The site may recommend that the individual follow up with a health department.

Those without internet access can call 801-851-HEPA (4372) for more information, beginning 8:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Health department officials say the infected 7-Eleven worker’s case and the Spanish Fork instances are linked to an ongoing outbreak in Utah that began in August among the state’s homeless population. The flare-up is linked to a much larger outbreak in California; Michigan also has seen a surge of hepatitis A cases in recent months.

A Monday update from the Utah Department of Health said 133 people have been sickened by that outbreak so far — with close to 60 percent of those requiring hospitalization. Symptoms include fever, diarrhea, vomiting and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin.

The disease usually spreads when traces of infected feces reach the mouth through contaminated food, water or unclean hands.

Before the 7-Eleven employee exposure, state and county health officials said the outbreak had been largely confined to the homeless. They warned that a single exposure at a convenience store or restaurant could rapidly spread the disease.

Homeless people are especially vulnerable to the viral disease — which in rare cases can be deadly — because they often have underlying medical conditions that exacerbate symptoms.

Health officials believe the 7-Eleven employee had contact with a homeless person, acquired hepatitis A and showed up sick to work — with a job that includes handling food — for several days between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3.

On Jan. 3, the Salt Lake County Health Department learned that the employee had been diagnosed with hepatitis A, Rupp said, and interviewed the store worker the next day. Meanwhile, 7-Eleven sanitized the store and threw away all its food. The store has since reopened.

Salt Lake County officials waited several days to alert the public, they said, because they did not have enough vaccinations on hand for as many as 2,000 people who may have been exposed.

In order for the vaccine to be effective, Rupp said, it needs to be administered within 14 days of exposure. That made Tuesday the last day to get the vaccine for those who may have been exposed Dec. 26, the first day the 7-Eleven employee showed up at work while sick.

The incubation period for hepatitis A is two to seven weeks, Rupp said, so officials likely won’t know for several days whether anyone who visited the store has been sickened.

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