One week after refusing a News Journal request to release the names of restaurants in Whitley County, which have had an employee or employees diagnosed with Hepatitis A, and five days after denying a News Journal open records request for records related to restaurants with employees diagnosed with Hepatitis A, the Whitley County Health Department reversed course and released the information Friday morning.
“After discussion with the Commissioner for Public Health and a few Board of Health Members, Whitley County Health Department decided to release the names of the restaurants that have had a food worker diagnosed with Hepatitis A,” Whitley County Health Department Interim Director Tamara Phelps said on a posting to the health department’s Facebook page Friday morning.
In July 2018, McDonalds on the Cumberland Falls Highway and Domino’s Pizza in Williamsburg each had one employee diagnosed with Hepatitis A. McDonalds in Williamsburg had one employee diagnosed with Hepatitis A in August 2018, the post stated.
“Investigations were immediately completed at all of the restaurants and it was deemed that the risk of patrons contracting Hepatitis A was determined to be low risk (employees did not work while they were symptomatic); therefore, that is why it was not deemed necessary to report to the public and cause undue panic. The health department has been following CDC guidelines to determine who would need postexposure vaccine after exposure to food prepared by a food handler with hepatitis A infection,” Phelps wrote in the post.
“McDonalds and Domino’s Pizza have passing scores on their yearly food service inspections. Food workers in Kentucky have not been identified to have spread the Hepatitis A Infection. Many local restaurants have been offering to pay for Hepatitis A vaccine for their employees.”
Phelps said in the posting that she does understand that the community is concerned about this outbreak, and desires to know when food workers are diagnosed.
“We at the health department are doing all we can do to protect the public. With approximately 149 cases of Hepatitis A in Whitley County and only 3 food service workers that have been diagnosed you can clearly see that the risk of food borne transmission from our local restaurants have been very low. For more information you can call the health department at 606-549-3380,” she wrote.
An about face
The posting of the information Friday is an about face for the health department, which previously refused to release the information.
On Dec. 7, the News Journal sent an e-mail to Phelps requesting in part, “How many cases have been reported involving employees at restaurants, who were diagnosed with Hepatitis A? The name of the restaurant the employee worked at, the address of the restaurant (lots of Subways and McDonalds out there), and the date or dates it was reported. I assume some restaurants may have had more than one person diagnosed?”
Phelps responded, “We are not releasing names of restaurants, nor names of people. I can say Whitley County has had less than 5 people that reported having worked at a restaurant prior to diagnosis. The persons employment is listed in their medical record not food service records. We do not have an open investigation at any restaurant at this time.”
The News Journal then sent an open records request to Phelps that same day, which stated in part, “Pursuant to the Kentucky Open Records Act, the News Journal is requesting a copy of records relating to restaurants in Whitley County with employees diagnosed with Hepatitis A since July 1, 2017. We are requesting copies of documents regarding employees diagnosed with Hepatitis A at any Whitley County restaurants. Please do not redact the name of the restaurant, the restaurant’s address or the date the restaurant was confirmed to have an employee with Hepatitis A.”
Phelps responded to the request on Dec. 10, but declined to release any of the requested documents or information stating in part that it was prohibited due to HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).
“Thank you for your open records request regarding Hepatitis A in restaurant workers in Whitley County. As I stated before we do not have an open violation on any restaurant at this time in regards to a Hepatitis A (case) nor have we had any open violations in the past. The Whitley County Health Department environmentalist, our disease surveillance nurse and myself discuss Hepatitis A cases that report food service employment and we have not had a case that meets the criteria to deem it necessary to report a particular restaurant. As far as any information regarding individuals working in particular restaurants, those records cannot be released due to HIPAA,” she wrote.
The News Journal’s request did not ask for the names of employees diagnosed with Hepatitis A.
What is Hepatitis A?
Hepatitis A is a highly contagious liver infection caused by the hepatitis A virus. The virus is one of several types of hepatitis viruses that cause inflammation and affect your liver’s ability to function.
Practicing good hygiene, including washing hands frequently with soap and water and vaccination for Hepatitis A are the best ways to protect against hepatitis A. Hepatitis A vaccine is available at the local health department, physician offices and pharmacies.
Hepatitis A signs and symptoms: sudden onset of fatigue, nausea and vomiting, abdominal pain or discomfort, especially on the upper right side beneath your lower ribs (by your liver), clay-colored bowel movements, loss of appetite, low-grade fever, dark urine, yellowing of the skin and the whites of your eyes (jaundice). These symptoms may be relatively mild and go away in a few weeks. Sometimes, however, hepatitis A infection results in a severe illness that lasts several months.
Hepatitis A usually spreads when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person. The virus spreads when an infected person does not wash their hands adequately after using the toilet or engages in high-risk behaviors.
Here are some of the specific ways the hepatitis A virus can spread:
• Eating food handled by someone with the virus who doesn’t thoroughly wash his or her hands after using the toilet
• Drinking contaminated water
• Eating raw shellfish from water polluted with sewage
• Being in close contact with a person who’s infected — even if that person has no signs or symptoms
• Having sex with someone who has the virus
Social media reaction
As of 1:30 p.m. Friday, the health department had 37 comments on its Facebook page, many of which were critical of the agency’s handling of the information.
“A little bit late warning the public considering its December,” Jodi Shelley wrote.
“Thanks for the PSA, after the unpublished multiple exposures to patrons of these restaurants. You had one job…” Carrie Davis wrote.
“Low risk or not it’s nice to be aware,” Lisa Smith wrote.
Not all the comments were negative.
“Thank you for the informative post. I believe many people don’t know what a lot of these illnesses are, or how they’re transmitted,” Kimberly Branham wrote.