PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Health bosses in Pinellas County are standing by their refusal to tell the dining public the name of every restaurant with Hepatitis A infected workers – claiming that information is protected by medical privacy rules.
“Epidemiological investigations are considered confidential,” said Pinellas County Health Department spokeswoman Maggie Hall. “We don’t identify restaurants where we do investigations.”
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But the I-Team uncovered a double standard when it comes to that “confidential” information. ABC Action News has learned Pinellas County Health Department officials contact all restaurant employees to tell them when they’ve been working alongside someone with Hepatitis A and urge them to get vaccinated.
But diners are not allowed to know that information – even if they eat at that same restaurant on a regular basis, according to the county health department.
But if there is a big enough health threat to vaccinate the coworkers of an infected restaurant employee, why not also warn the dining public?
ABC Action News posed that question to Pinellas County Health Director Dr. Ulyee Choe.
“We follow CDC protocols and it's always recommended that coworkers get vaccinated," Choe said.
Dr. Choe told the I-Team he decides which restaurant workers are a threat the public – mainly by focusing on the restaurant’s sanitary practices.
“We look at and do a joint assessment with [health inspectors at the Department of Business and Professional Regulation] to see hand hygiene practices,” said Choe said. “If it rises to the level and deemed a public health risk, that's when we make a public notification.”
This is the first time ABC Action News has been able to speak to Dr. Choe, who has refused the I-Team’s past interview requests to speak about the epidemic.
That may be because of Dr. Choe’s busy schedule.
State records show Dr. Choe has two other jobs – at the University of South Florida and Tampa General Hospital – the same contract deal the I-Team found the state gave to Dr. Douglas Holt, Hillsborough County’s health director.
“In terms of the duties I have at USF, it does not interfere with anything I do here,” Dr. Choe said.
Dr. Choe was on hand Monday as Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez took a tour of the Pinellas County Health Department.
“Clearly Hepatitis A is a concern,” Núñez told ABC Action News after the tour. “It’s a concern not just here in this county but throughout the state.”
Hepatitis A continues to spread with over 1,000 cases in Florida so far this year and Pinellas County has become one of the centers of the epidemic.
“The importance from my perspective with this visit is really understand what they’re doing in outreach perspective while making sure that the public understands there are ways to prevent,” Núñez said. “Good hygiene is important. Vaccinations are important.”
Pinellas County Health Department is offering Hepatitis A vaccines to the public at no cost at several vaccine centers. For more information on where you can get these free vaccines in Pinellas County, you can click here. Other Florida counties, including Hillsborough, also provide free or discounted Hepatitis A vaccines to under insured people. You can click here for more information.
For more information on Hepatitis A and guidelines from the federal government, visit: www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hav/index.htm.