I think the Whitley County Health Department is doing the citizens of our county a disservice by not being more forthcoming regarding food service workers diagnosed with Hepatitis A.
Kentucky has the nation’s worst outbreak of the disease. Among Kentucky counties, Whitley ranks third worst. So, that’s pretty bad.
Daily, I read headlines from across the state where health departments in other counties are warning their citizens about restaurants where workers have been diagnosed. Just this past Monday, a Sonny’s restaurant in Richmond and the Little Caesars in Corbin were identified as having had employees diagnosed with Hepatitis A.
These are appropriate disclosures. Reporting on this is most definitely in the public interest. Our local health department is out of step on this issue. It’s that simple. In other counties, people have access to this information. In Whitley, we are kept in the dark.
People who have frequented restaurants with employees with Hepatitis A have the right to know so that they can be extra vigilant in looking for warning signs of the disease, getting vaccinated, perhaps even taking other precautions to preserve their own health, and to ensure friends and family don’t get sick as well.
The News Journal is working hard to pry loose this information from the Whitley County Health Department. It is tough, but it is the right thing to do. We won’t quit.
In the past week, we’ve asked the health department’s Interim Director — who has only communicated with us by email — about this very issue. We also filed a request under the Kentucky Open Records Act seeking information. No records were provided. Here’s what we think we know, based on the responses we received:
• There have been 144 total cases since the outbreak. “Less than 5” restaurants have been affected in Whitley County.
• The health department says it has looked into cases at each restaurant and determined risk of spreading the infection to be low, so that’s one justification they use to not release the information. Incidentally, other county health departments have made similar determinations, but haven’t been so tight with information.
• Apparently, these reviews or investigations, take place but there is ZERO documentation detailing anything about them. The only documents that exist about where food-service workers diagnosed with Hepatitis-A are employed are in their personal health files. Seems sort of odd, but that’s what we were told. I’m pretty sure there is a way to satisfy our request without violating any privacy laws. Others seem capable of doing so.
• In any event, a general decision has been madethat NO names of restaurants will be released. We don’t know if this is an internal policy or what. This is in the email response from the interim director: “We are not releasing names of restaurants, nor names of people.” Basically, if you want to know … TOUGH!
Reasonable folks at many other health departments across the state seem to think quite a bit differently on this issue.
It is interesting to note, that similar requests made by the News Journal to health departments in Laurel and Knox Counties were answered immediately, and pertinent records were provided detailing the information requested. Whitley County is the only place where there is an issue.
I think our health department is in error taking this stance. It doesn’t seem particularly responsive to the community they serve. The longer information is suppressed, the less useful it can be. I fear even if we somehow prevail in getting the information and telling you about it, so much time will have passed that it will be essentially useless.
That’s a shame. Citizens of Whitley County deserve better.