MADEIRA BEACH, FL -- A Pinellas County restaurant worker has tested positive for Hepatitis A, a virus that has now killed 18 Floridians since Jan. 1, 2018.   This is the sixth time a Pinellas County food service worker has tested positive for the disease.

WARNING:  The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County epidemiological investigation confirmed Friday that an employee of the Friendly Fisherman at 150 John’s Pass Boardwalk Place in Madeira Beach was infected while working at the restaurant between May 7 and May 20.  Customers who ate at the restaurant during this period who have not been vaccinated for hepatitis-A should consider getting vaccinated, said DOH officials. 

The Florida Department of Health is closely monitoring an outbreak 

of the virus in Florida with Tampa Bay as the epicenter

Since January 2018, 1,768 people have tested positive for the disease, more than double the number from 2016 to 2017. And just five months into 2019, the number of cases (898) has already surpassed the total number of cases in 2018.  Of the 1,768 total cases in Florida from Jan. 1, 2018, to May 18, 2019, 834 of the cases were in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. Pinellas County had the highest number of cases -- 357.

Hepatitis A is caused by a contagious virus that infects the liver, and can lead to serious liver problems, hospitalization and sometimes death. Since Jan. 1, 2018, 1,091 (73 percent) of the Floridians who tested positive have been hospitalized, and 18 people have died.   

So far, the outbreak isn't showing signs of abating. Between May 12 and May 18, there were 89 cases reported in Florida.  The DOH said 97 percent of the cases since January 2018 were contracted locally with 21 percent of the cases linked to other cases in Florida.

The virus spreads through the feces of people who have the virus. If a person with the virus doesn't wash his or her hands after going to the bathroom, feces can transfer to objects, food, drinks or drugs. When these things are shared, other people can unknowingly swallow the virus. The virus can also spread through close contact, such as sexual relations.

The unprecedented number of cases has put the health department on alert, said Dr. Carina Blackmore, Florida state epidemiologist.  "With Florida being the third largest state in the country, it is unfortunate, but not surprising that our case numbers have also been rising," she said.  One reason, she said, may be the state's ongoing opioid crisis. The largest population of people infected are homeless men between 30 and 50 years old who use drugs.

A number of county health departments notify the public when restaurant workers test positive for the virus, although the state does not require public notification. The reason is restaurant workers are in contact with food through which the virus can spread to hundreds of customers.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said restaurant workers aren't more likely to contract the disease than any other occupation. In Florida, restaurant employees represent a fraction of the overall cases reported. Currently, Florida, like most states, does not require restaurant workers to be tested or vaccinated. The cases reported in restaurant workers have been discovered during voluntary visits to doctor's offices and clinics, which then report the positive results to the county health department. 

Since January, cases have been confirmed at the following restaurants in Tampa Bay:

  • ICON Gentelmen's Club, 18728 U.S. 19, Hudson, April 24
  • Ulele, 1810 N. Highland Ave., Tampa, Feb. 6
  • Taco Bell, 40976 U.S. 19 N., Tarpon Springs, April 12
  • Hellas Bakery, 785 Dodecanese Blvd., Tarpon Springs, March 19
  • Central Park Inc., 7657 State Road 54, New Port Richey, Jan. 19
  • Jimmy's Fish House and Iguana Bar, 521 S. Gulfview Blvd., Clearwater Beach, March 19
  • Pollo Tropical, 2140 Gulf to Bay Blvd., Clearwater, March 25
  • Sandpipe Grille, 702 S. Pebble Beach Blvd., Sun City Center, April 3
  • Ferg's Sports Bar & Grill, 1320 Central Ave, St. Petersburg, April 15
  • Ollies on the Beach, 6438 Clark St., Hudson, Jan. 25
  • Cracker Barrel, 5341 U.S. 19, New Port Richey, Feb. 18
  • Bob Katz Bar and Grill, 12340 U.S. 19 N., Hudson, April 1
  • Arby's, 30263 U.S. 19 N., Clearwater, April 5 
  • Silverthorn Country Club, 4550 Golf Club Lane, Spring Hill, April 12 

Blackmore emphasized, however, that hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable disease if given within two weeks after exposure. Those exposed should receive the first dose of the hepatitis A immunization immediately and a second dose in six months.

Symptoms of a hepatitis A infection include sudden onset of abdominal discomfort, dark urine, fever, diarrhea, pale white stools, and yellow skin and eyes (jaundice).   Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek medical attention promptly. The DOH has set up a 24-hour hotline for people who have questions about hepatitis A. The number to call is 727-824-6932.

Even if you haven't knowingly been exposed, Blackmore said a vaccination is the best way to protect yourself against hepatitis A. Since the outbreak, the DOH is offering free vaccinations to those who were recently exposed or at high risk. Otherwise, the vaccinations cost $25 with insurance.   The Florida Department of Health is actively working to vaccinate those most at risk for the hepatitis A infection including:

  • All children at age 1 year 
  • People who are homeless 
  • Users of recreational drugs, whether injected or not 
  • Gay and bi-sexual men 
  • People with direct contact with others who have hepatitis A 
  • Travelers to countries where hepatitis A is common 
  • People with chronic or long-term liver disease, including hepatitis B or hepatitis C 
  • People with clotting-factor disorders
  • Family and caregivers of children adopted from countries where hepatitis A is common

People infected with hepatitis A are most contagious from two weeks before the onset of symptoms to one week afterward. Not everyone who is infected will have all the symptoms. If you're experiencing some of them, the DOH said you should go ahead and get tested. Symptoms usually start within 28 days of exposure to the virus with a range of 15 to 50 days.   

Those who ate at the Friendly Fisherman between May 7 and May 20

can receive free vaccinations at the following clinics:

  • DOH-Pinellas is offering the vaccine at the following locations Monday through Friday from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.:
  • St. Petersburg: 205 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N.
  • Pinellas Park: 6350 76th Ave. N.
  • Mid-County (Largo): 8751 Ulmerton Road
  • Clearwater: 310 N. Myrtle Ave.
  • Tarpon Springs: 301 S. Disston Ave.

DOH-Pinellas will be closed in observance of Memorial Day on Monday, May 27. Business will resume at 7:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 28.