Congressman Charlie Crist is accusing Florida health officials of keeping hepatitis A cases secret to protect the state’s tourism industry at the expense of public health.
Crist is among other lawmakers demanding answers after an ABC Action News Anchor Wendy Ryan uncovered the state kept secret the majority of cases of food service workers with hepatitis A.
Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida's surgeon general, told lawmakers at a recent hearing, "Only about 20% of the situations where a food service worker has hepatitis A has resulted in a patron notification."
The admission has lawmakers calling for more transparency.
Crist, D-St. Petersburg, said by only warning the public about 20% of the hepatitis A cases in restaurant workers, the health department is not doing its job.
"What about the other 80% of the other people?," said Crist. "Why wouldn't you be honest with them? Why would you not be forthcoming? Just tell the truth. Let people know so they can protect themselves."
Crist recently sent a letter to the surgeon general demanding more transparency on coronavirus cases and said he believes the state is withholding information on outbreaks like hepatitis A to protect Florida's tourism industry at the expense of public health.
"It's troubling," said Crist. "If you're trying to protect an industry and you do so with a potentially lethal situation, how do you explain that? How do you justify that? Money over people? What's that about?"
The state surgeon general and Florida Department of Health has yet to respond to requests for comment on Crist's accusations.
Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, said she wants the state to release information on where hepatitis A deaths and infections are happening.
"I think that's part of their job and I think they have an obligation to let us know what is going on in the communities," said Berman.
A local mom whose son nearly died from the virus said more information should be released to the public.
Renee Hall said her son Jesse Raffensberger was a healthy and active 21-year-old until he was diagnosed with hepatitis A last year.
"He was in intensive care for 10 days and isolated," said Hall.
But Hall said the Manatee County Health Department never investigated her son's case.
"The county has never contacted him about it," said Hall. "They attempted once when he was in intensive care and almost incapacitated, but they've never contacted him since."
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Hall said she was troubled that health officials never followed up with his employer – a local restaurant.
"Jesse worked at a restaurant and yet the county never even acknowledged where he worked at, did any kind of investigation – nothing. They kept it quiet," said Hall.
The I-Team reached out to the Manatee County Health Department for comment on Hall's accusations that it failed to investigate her son's case and did not inform people who ate at the restaurant where he worked.
Hall said she wants to put an end to the government's secrecy surrounding hepatitis A cases and deaths because she believes it's the only way to end the outbreak, which has killed dozens and infected thousands.
Hall said, "The only way they're going to contain it is to let the public know."
ABC Action News anchor Wendy Ryan emailed and called the Florida Health Department's Communications Director Alberto Moscoso to respond to the critical remarks from Congressman Charlie Crist and other lawmakers but we still have not heard back. She also reached out to the Manatee County Health Department's Communications Director Christopher Tittel but he too has not responded.