Some customers of a 7-Eleven store in Salt Lake County have only today and tomorrow to receive post-exposure treatment for hepatitis A exposure from an infected employee at the convenience store.

As many as 2,000 people or more were likely exposed, according to the county health department. Utah is one of several states involved in an outbreak of a particular hepatitis A strain that was initially identified in San Diego. As of Jan. 2 the state reported 124 confirmed outbreak cases.

Sunday the Salt Lake County Health Department posted a health alert urging medical review for anyone who used the restrooms or consumed certain foods and beverages at the 7-Eleven at 2666 West 7800 South in West Jordan. The exposure dates are Dec. 26, 2017, through Jan. 3.

Post-exposure treatment is only effective if administered within two weeks of exposure, so people who were at the 7-Eleven location on Dec. 26 have only until Tuesday to receive treatment.

“The preventive injection recommendation is for customers who visited the store on any date from Tuesday, Dec. 26, through Wednesday, Jan. 3, and who used any restroom in the store or consumed any of the following items,” according to the county alert.

  • Fountain drinks or other self-serve beverages;
  • Fresh fruit; or
  • Any item from the store’s hot food case, such as pizza, hot dogs, chicken wings, or taquitos.

“Packaged items, including bottled beverages and microwaved foods, are not implicated in the possible exposure. Customers who consumed only packaged or bottled items do not need to contact the health department. Customers who are fully vaccinated with two doses against hepatitis A also do not need to contact the health department.”

Customers with questions are urged to call the county health department at 385-468-4636 for instructions. The phone line will be staffed form 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. beginning today, Jan. 8. Health department staff will screen callers for their exposure risk and provide them with options for receiving the post-exposure hepatitis A vaccine.

County officials did not indicate when they became aware of the sick 7-Eleven employee, who they reported worked while ill and “potentially handled certain items in the store.” The 7-Eleven store operators are cooperating with the health department investigation. The store has been sanitized “according to health department recommendations,” according to the statement released Sunday.

Hepatitis A vaccinations are not required by law for foodservice workers, but the nationwide outbreak has some officials and advocates calling for employers to step up and provide the vaccinations for the highly contagious virus, which attacks the liver and can be fatal.

“This is an important reminder to food service establishments that they should consider vaccinating their food-handling employees against hepatitis A,” said Gary Edwards, executive director of the county health department.

“It’s also important that food handlers be conscientious with hygiene, hand washing and not working when ill — and that managers be vigilant in enforcing those important requirements that help protect public health.”

Another advocate of vaccination for all foodservice workers

“One hepatitis A positive foodservice worker can infect customers and cause thousands to seek preventive vaccines,” said Seattle food safety attorney Bill Marler. “Illness and vaccines can cost us all thousands if not millions of dollars, and can cost restaurants their viability, either by a downturn in customers or an increase in lawsuits.”

Hepatitis A vaccine is covered by most insurance plans, according to the county health department notice, and is widely available at local pharmacies, health care providers and county immunization clinics. Call 385-468-7468 for an appointment at a health department immunization clinic.

Advice to the public
Anyone who developed symptoms of hepatitis A infection after using the restrooms or consuming certain beverages and food at the 7-Eleven store should immediately seek medical attention.

It usually takes two to seven weeks for symptoms to develop after exposure to the virus. So,people who were potentially exposed at the convenience store location should monitor themselves in the coming weeks. If they develop symptoms, public health officials say they should immediately seek medical attention.

Symptoms can include fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal, and sometimes yellow eyes or skin and dark urine. People are often most contagious before they feel sick, which makes it difficult to know whether a foodservice worker is infected. That is one of the reasons health officials and other public health advocates want businesses to pay for employee vaccinations.

A person can get Hepatitis A when they eat, drink, or touch their mouth with food, liquid or objects —  including their hands — that have come into contact feces from an infected person. Microscopic amounts of feces that are undetectable by the human eye carry enough of the virus to infect people.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)

Editor’s note: Bill Marler is a founding partner of Marler Clark LLP and is publisher of Food Safety News.