Just one week after Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees declared a Public Health Emergency over the state’s Hepatitis A  epidemic,  free vaccines are being offered to Tampa Bay residents.   Florida’s Pinellas County Health Department.is offering the vaccines without charge at its clinics.   A local Red Lobster restaurant might have spread the virus.

The free vaccine offer also follows the report that a Largo, FL restaurant worker last week tested positive for the hepatitis A virus. The employee who was positive for hepatitis A was working at the Red Lobster, located at 10500 East Ulmerton Road in Largo.

Dr.Rivkees says vaccinations are the most effective measure that can be taken against hepatitis A.

In Florida, the critically impacted counties are Brevard, Citrus, Glades, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Liberty, Manatee, Marion, Martin, Okeechobee, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Sumter, Taylor, and Volusia. Hepatitis A case counts for 2019 thus far have already surpassed those in 2018. From January 1, 2019, through July 27, 2019, 2,034 hepatitis A cases were reported.

The Pinellas County Health Department and the Division of Hotels and Restaurants conducted a July 30 joint inspection Red Lobster after they received confirmation of that hepatitis A case.

During that inspection, the state found almost 40 violations, which included employees not properly washing their hands. Sanitation failures are how hepatitis A can be transferred from an infected person and into the food they’re prepping.

The state saw the wait staff handle dirty dishes and then serve fresh food without washing their hands. An inspector also saw the cook switch from working with raw food to ready-to-eat food without washing his hands. Another employee touched ready-to-eat food with his bare hands, according to the inspection report.

Inspectors also observed potentially hazardous cold food held at greater than 41 degrees Fahrenheit on the cook’s line.
They found pico de gallo at 52 degrees Fahrenheit, cut cabbage at 57 degrees, corn salsa at 52 degrees, chicken at 45 degrees, fish at 50 degrees, beef steak at 47 degrees, leafy greens at 50 degrees, cut tomato at 50 degrees and shredded cheese at 50 degrees.

Other high priority violations included raw tuna stored overcooked shrimp and tortillas, a cross-contamination issue. And the build-up of old food debris or dirt on oven mitts, soda lines under the coke machine, inside the walk-in freezer, on the menus, cutting board, iced tea dispenser, the interior of the oven and on the walls.

Hepatitis A has become an epidemic in the Tampa Bay area, and the state with more than 1,700 confirmed cases in Florida since January 2018.

The hepatitis A virus spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food, or drinks that have been contaminated with small undetected amounts of stool from an infected person.

In the last three years, 29 states have reported 23,638 hepatitis A cases.  Sixty percent required hospitalizations and 233 deaths are associated with the outbreaks.

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