TAMPA, Fla. -- An ABC Action News Dirty Dining I-Team investigation uncovered a worker at popular downtown Tampa restaurant – as well as workers at other dining spots in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties – tested positive for Hepatitis A but the health department never told the public.
A worker, who is a food handler, at Ulele on along Tampa’s Riverwalk tested positive for Hepatitis A in February, according to state records.
Ulele management told ABC Action News the infected employee was treated before returning to work.
The restaurant's management also said the health department notified them about case about 60 restaurant employees were then vaccinated for Hepatitis A.
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Health bosses in both Pinellas and Hillsborough have refused to issue public health advisories for every restaurant with an infected employee.
But the I-Team has uncovered the cases of infected restaurant workers those county health departments kept from the public.
Jimmy's Fish House on Clearwater Beach had worker with a confirmed case of Hepatitis A in March, while Tony's Pizzeria in Clearwater had a worker test positive in November.
The I-Team asked Pinellas County Health Director Dr. Ulyee Choe why customers aren’t always alerted.
“We follow CDC protocols and it's always recommended that coworkers get vaccinated," said Choe. “Again, we only make that public notification when it is a health threat.”
Choe said his department inspects these restaurants with state inspectors to look at hand washing practices and sanitary conditions before he decides which businesses to name and release to the public.
“If it rises to the level and deemed a public health risk, that's when we make a public notification,” Choe said.
Ulele management emailed a statement, saying, “Ulele was given a clean bill of health by both local and state Health Department officials.”
The restaurant also told ABC Action News, “Ulele management maintained contact with the Health Department for a week to verify that the restaurant was prudently handling the situation and eliminating all risks.”
Managers at Jimmy’s Fish House said other employees were also tested after they were notified by the health department.
Christine Bottger, general manager of Jimmy's Fish House, released the following statement:
Our restaurant was notified on April 2, 2019 that a previous employee was diagnosed on March 8, 2019 as a case of Hepatitis A. The notification came on a visit by members of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation Health Department and State Investigators.
The State Investigator Alissa Brown concluded that we were a low-level public health threat as the past employee was not involved with food preparation or food service and indicated that no further state action would be mandated. Subsequently the Health Department interviewed all of our restaurant employees, and provided them with health and no- cost vaccination information.
Our restaurant management team has taken all necessary precautions and sanitation recommendations, as well as provided instructional materials and guidance for safe food practices. All of our employees take this matter very seriously and we appreciated the input provided by the Health Department.
The current owner of Tony's Pizzeria in Clearwater said he bought the place in February. He said he heard a worker tested positive in November but had no other information.
Below is the full statement released by Ulele Chief Marketing Officer Michael Kilgore:
- On Feb. 6, management learned of potential exposure to hepatitis A at Ulele from one employee who was diagnosed earlier that day.
- Per standards, the hospital treating the employee notified the Health Department, and both the employee and the Health Department notified Ulele even as we were preparing to call the Health Department when we found out from the employee.
- The employee was immediately treated and did not return to work until cleared for work by Health Department officials.
- The entire Ulele staff was promptly informed of the potential exposure and advised to continue to strictly maintain Ulele’s high food safety, hygiene and cleanliness standards.
- Ulele cooperated fully with Health Department officials to do everything possible to eliminate any resulting risks, including a surprise three-hour Health Department inspection of Ulele on Feb. 6 within hours of notification.
- Based upon that inspection and Ulele’s best practices, Ulele was given a clean bill of health by both local and state Health Department officials.
- On Feb. 7 and Feb. 8, the Health Department offered and Ulele encouraged free optional hepatitis A vaccines to all Ulele employees (resulting in more than 60 vaccines being administered).
- Because Ulele management and staff consistently maintain the highest standards of extensive training and practice in food safety, hygiene and cleanliness, they were as prepared as possible for this event.
- For example, Ulele staff members are required to: (a) always wear disposable gloves while handling food and (b) wash hands frequently (including after bathroom visits).
- Ulele management maintained contact with the Health Department for a week to verify that the restaurant was prudently handling the situation and eliminating all risks.
- Ulele has continued its rigorous food safety, hygiene and cleanliness training regimen since that event, including a detailed review of the FDA’s new Employee Health and Personal Hygiene Handbook at a recent general managers’ meeting.
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. 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.
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