SALT LAKE CITY — Citing an "imminent public health concern," the Salt Lake County Board of Health on Thursday began requiring all food workers be vaccinated at an eatery if any employee has been exposed to hepatitis A.
The new requirement is a temporary measure in response to a hepatitis A outbreak in the county, said Gary Edwards, executive director of the Salt Lake County Health Department.
"When the outbreak is over, this temporary regulation would no longer be in effect," Edwards said.
Temporary health regulations are allowed to be "enacted by the board of health without the normal public hearing process in response to an imminent public health concern," Salt Lake County Health Department spokesman Nicholas Rupp explained in a news release.
Affected establishments have 14 days to come into compliance with the new requirement, according to Rupp. Workers who don't comply "will be excluded from work assignments that involve handling food or food-contact services," he said, adding that "food establishments are responsible for maintaining official record of their employees' vaccination status."
When health officials identify a worker who has been exposed to someone with hepatitis A, Edwards said, the restaurant "would just need to have all their employees show proof of vaccination, either that they got it when the health department came or they got it (previously)," Edwards said. "And we are able to help those employees track down those records."
Rupp noted in the release that "each occurrence of an unvaccinated employee handling food or a food-contact surface will be recorded as a critical violation on the establishment’s inspection history."
"Repeated failure to comply may result in suspension or revocation of the affected food establishment’s permit to operate," Rupp said.
Edwards said the new requirement is simply a matter of mandating what was already generally in practice.
"This really isn't different than what we have been doing — we just have not had the authorization to require vaccinations," Edwards said.
Rupp said the temporary measure, in place for 120 days, allows the county to cover up to 50 percent of the cost of a vaccine for anyone getting the treatment at a health department clinic who is able to verify they are a food-service employee.
Edwards added that as long as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are providing the county with vaccines, they can be administered free to those employees.
As of Jan. 17, 146 outbreak-related hepatitis A cases had been reported in Utah since May 2017, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with most of those in Salt Lake County.
County workers have administered 7,500 vaccines in response, focusing mostly in areas where there are high concentrations of those who are homeless, though Edwards said "numerous" restaurant employees have received vaccinations as part of that push as well.
"The high-risk populations are the homeless, illicit drug users and individuals who have had recent experience with the criminal justice system," Edwards said. "So those are the groups that we are primarily targeting."
But authorities have also warned Utahns not to be complacent about their own risk, saying the spread of hepatitis A could easily affect the general population if proper precautions aren't taken.
Last month, officials identified a 7-Eleven in West Jordan, as well as two Utah County restaurants — an Olive Garden and Sonic DriveIn, each in Spanish Fork — as places where customers could have been exposed to the virus due to an infected worker. Those warnings prompted an avalanche of calls as people dialed in for help assessing their risk.
The illness can be spread through tiny amounts of feces of an infected person, meaning it can easily be transmitted through contaminated food and drink. Health officials have warned that taking extra care to wash hands before preparing food and after using the restroom is critical for everyone — but particularly those working in the restaurant industry.
"With food service being a high-risk way to transmit hepatitis A, we focus on that group when there is a contact to the case" of an infected person, Edwards said.
The most sure way for a person to mitigate risk is to get a hepatitis A vaccine, which is "very, very effective," Edwards said.1 comment on this story
"It's been one of the required vaccines for a number of years, and people up to about age 21 would have experienced that requirement," he said. "We're not seeing any cases in that age group. It's above that age where we're having the hepatitis A cases."
A vaccine can also be effective in warding off hepatitis A for up to two weeks, Rupp has said previously.
Hepatitis A is an inflammation of the liver that can result in numerous serious symptoms, including stomach and joint pain, jaundice, severe itchiness, sudden vomiting, clay-colored stool and fatigue, according to the Mayo Clinic.