Health officials in New Jersey are scrambling to prevent an outbreak of hepatitis A after a Starbucks employee reportedly tested positive for the virus last week. The location where the employee worked was temporarily shut down, and hundreds of people have received a vaccine against the virus, including the employee’s co-workers. Potentially thousands of people may be at risk of contracting the foodborne illness, however, and officials are recommending that unvaccinated customers who visited the store in early to mid November get a shot.
Camden County officials say they were notified of the case on November 17 by a health care provider treating the patient, who is a food handler at the Starbucks location on 1490 Blackwood Clementon Road in Gloucester Township. Health inspectors visited the store and found no signs of food safety violations, but nonetheless made the decision to shut its doors until all workers were vaccinated. The county also held vaccine clinics into the weekend and reportedly vaccinated hundreds of possibly exposed people.
Hepatitis A is one of five major viruses known to cause liver inflammation, or the titular hepatitis. Its symptoms include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, dark-colored urine, and jaundice, and typically appear 28 days after exposure. Hepatitis A usually isn’t life-threatening, nor a potentially chronic infection like hepatitis B and C, though older people are more likely to become seriously sick. The illness it causes usually lasts less than two months, but it can last up to six months for 10% to 15% of sufferers. The virus is highly contagious to boot, especially during the first two weeks following symptoms. It’s usually spread through food and water contaminated with someone’s infected feces, though close and sexual contact can spread it as well.
Because the employee had been working all throughout their most infectious period, it’s possible that thousands of people may have been exposed to the virus, health officials have said. Anyone who visited the store on November 4 through 6, as well as November 11 through 13, are advised to get the hepatitis A vaccine. They should get the vaccine as soon as possible and no later than 14 days after a possible exposure, since it’s unlikely to work after then.
Camden health officials say that those born after 2000 are likely to have gotten vaccinated already, though people or their guardians should check with a doctor to make sure. The hepatitis A vaccine has been recommended for all children after the first year of life in the U.S. since 2006, though only 68% of teens have gotten the full two-dose schedule as of 2017, and some states do not mandate it for entering public school. Both infection and vaccination are thought to confer lifelong immunity to the virus.
Despite being vaccine-preventable, annual cases of hepatitis A have been on the rise in recent years. In 2019, there were nearly 20,000 cases reported in the U.S. This upswing has been fueled by outbreaks among people experiencing homelessness as well as people who use drugs. But earlier this year, a large outbreak tied to a restaurant chain in Virginia sickened at least 50 residents and left three dead.
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