SPANISH FORK — A local food pantry has been added to the list of places where hepatitis A is a concern.
The Utah County Health Department reports there may be more people exposed after visiting Tabitha's Way Local Food Pantry South County, 140 S. Main, in Spanish Fork. The Spanish Fork Olive Garden, where an infected worker and resulting public cases have been identified, donates food to the pantry, potentially exposing patrons to the highly contagious liver disease.
Olive Garden representative Hunter Robinson said the 400 pounds of food that was donated in the last couple weeks was packaged in the back of the restaurant and the infected employee worked only in the front, serving, seating and bringing food to people there.
"They made us aware of a possible exposure and we then, of course, discarded the food items we had, but some of the items had already gone out," said Wendy Thompson, who works at the food pantry. She said people should either throw out the food, or, if it has been eaten, call the health department.
The Utah County Health Department is advising all restaurants to reconsider policies regarding sick employees, as it is clear now that hepatitis A has moved to the general population.
"If you don't let a sick employee stay home and they get your customers sick, it affects your bottom line, so it's a very good thing businesswise and healthwise to have sick employees stay home," Sam Marsden, food safety program manager in Utah County.
It is believed that a thousand people a day went to this particular Olive Garden over the 10-day window of exposure during the holidays.
The infected employee, Robinson said, reportedly had nothing to do with the donated food — mainly oversupply of large batches of soups and sauces cooked early in the day and sealed in bags. Only unopened bags are donated to the food pantry with the date written on them and they are immediately frozen.
Robinson said the Olive Garden franchise doesn't believe there is much risk associated with the exchange of the leftover food, saying the Utah County Health Department is including the pantry out of "an abundance of caution."
The restaurant, he said, "does not believe people are at risk."
The health department, however, is looking to stop the possible spread of disease and asks that people who received non-canned food from Tabitha's food pantry between Dec. 28 and Jan. 3 visit https://health.utah.gov/investigation or call 801-851-HEPA (4372) to determine whether a vaccination or further treatment is needed.
A hepatitis A vaccination can help only if it is administered within a short time of possible exposure, according to the health department.
The health department is also alerting anyone who frequented the Olive Garden at 1092 N. Canyon Creek Parkway between Dec. 21 and Dec. 30, as well as those who visited the Sonic Drive-In at 971 N. Main in Spanish Fork, where another infected employee worked from Dec. 23 to Dec. 24.
In addition to the now three Utah County locations, the Salt Lake County Health Department published a warning over the weekend that there was a risk to anyone who bought hot food, fountain or self-serve beverages, or used the restroom at the 7-Eleven store at 2666 W. 7800 South in West Jordan anytime between Dec. 26 and Jan. 3.
The Utah Department of Health reports there have been 152 cases of hepatitis A in the state since January 2017 and at least 87 percent of cases have stemmed from Salt Lake City's homeless population and illicit drug users, who are particularly vulnerable because of a lack of access to sanitation and poor hygiene practices. It is unknown whether the cases linked to Utah County restaurants and the Salt Lake County convenience store will change that.
Local tests have connected Utah cases to a more widespread outbreak in San Diego, California, where hundreds have become ill and at least 20 have died from the disease.Comment on this story
In a typical year, Utah County has one to two confirmed hepatitis A cases. But as of Jan. 2, according to data kept by the state, there have been 26 cases reported since May 2017, when the latest outbreak is believed to have begun.
Symptoms of hepatitis A could take a couple of weeks to show up and include nausea and/or vomiting, abdominal pain, yellowing eyes or skin, dark urine, diarrhea and fatigue. The disease spreads easily through contaminated food and water or sexual contact.
Contributing: Ladd Egan