PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. — Hepatitis A has become a booming epidemic in Florida, but a Dirty Dining I-Team investigation uncovered the local health officials continued to promote a culture of secrecy surrounding the outbreak and kept the public in the dark – even after another worker at a Tampa Bay area restaurant tested positive.
ABC Action News Anchor Wendy Ryan uncovered a server at a Hellas Restaurant and Bakery in Tarpon Springs tested positive for Hepatitis A in March, but local health officials never told the public.
The news comes as the I-Team found the Hepatitis A crisis has hit Pinellas County particularly hard with one-third of all new confirmed cases in the bay area so far this year reported out of Pinellas.
ABC Action News found Pinellas County had no cases of Hepatitis A just two years ago, but the county reported more than 100 new cases last year.
Now, more than 200 new confirmed cases of Hepatitis A have been reported in Pinellas County in just the first four months of this year.
Michael Scott, a cook for more than 30 years and most recently at Hellas, said he only found out about the infected server after he got a call from the health department.
“They told me that I’d been exposed to Hepatitis A,” said Scott. “There was a person who worked at Hellas who had contracted Hepatitis A in the timeframe that I worked there.”
Health department never told the public
Scott said he’s angry the county never told the public about the infected server at the restaurant where he formerly worked.
“Hundreds of people coming in and out of that door every day and none of them knew,” said Scott.
The I-Team obtained an email showing the Pinellas County Health Department contacted the state on March 14 to request a joint inspection at Hellas after “a positive case of Hepatitis A has been identified as a 'server' at the restaurant.”
The owner of Hellas told ABC Action News that when he learned about the case, “we told our staff they could receive free Hepatitis A shots and we even had the health department come to our offices to make it as easy as possible for our employees to get their shots.”
The I-Team’s requests to interview Pinellas County Health Director Dr. Ulyee Choe about why he never told the public were refused. The county’s spokeswoman, Maggie Hall, also refused to talk about this case or the epidemic sweeping the area and referred the I-Team to a state spokesman in Tallahassee.
Hepatitis A secrecy continues in Tampa Bay area
This isn’t the first time Tampa Bay area health officials have kept information about Hepatitis A from the public.
In January, a Dirty Dining I-Team investigation uncovered Hillsborough County’s health director, Dr. Douglas Holt, sent customers scrambling for vaccinations after he announced an employee at Hamburger Mary’s in Ybor City tested positive for Hepatitis A, but Holt refused to tell the public the names or locations of four other restaurants with infected workers.
Other counties are working to be more transparent.
Martin County officials held a news conference last month after reports of 19 cases and three deaths there and promised more information to come.
“To Martin County residents, I want to assure you that we are committed and diligently working to investigate the cause of these local Hepatitis A infections and we will leave no stone unturned,” said Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nuñez at the time.
Florida declares health advisory
Nuñez also told the public there have been more than 1,200 Hepatitis A cases reported in Florida since January 2018.
Florida officials recently declared a health advisory on Hepatitis A statewide.
The Hepatitis A virus is spread when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food or drinks that have been contaminated with small undetected amounts of stool from an infected person.
After repeated requests for interviews and answers, the spokeswoman for the Pinellas County Health Department finally sent ABC Action News an email saying the county is educating the public with an advertisement on the side of a bus and a public safety announcement she said is running on Spectrum. The agency also says it’s offering vaccinations to anyone who wants it.
But the I-Team found many Pinellas County residents who said they knew very little about the epidemic, including Michael Bagley who told ABC Action News Anchor Wendy Ryan the county isn’t doing enough to educate the public.
“Because if I don’t know that much about it, it would be good for myself as a consumer and as a person on the street to know more about it,” said Bagley.
Another resident, Liz Schlensker, said “I think that the county definitely needs to let everyone know about it.”
And James Mosher was even more blunt, telling the I-Team, “It’s kind of disgusting the lack of information.”
For more information on Hepatitis A and guidelines from the federal government, visit: https://www.cdc.gov/hepatitis/hav/index.htm