Fast-food workers are not required to receive hepatitis A vaccinations, but a number of restaurants have opted to voluntarily contract with the Health Department amid an outbreak that’s been called the worst in the nation.
At last count, Franklin County had seen 22 reported cases of hepatitis A since the Kentucky outbreak began in late 2017. And the number of cases has been steadily increasing. At the start of September, there had been just 13 cases reported in Franklin County. Only one local case of hepatitis A has been linked to a fast-food worker — at Hardees on U.S. 127.
Meanwhile, across the state, the number of reported cases has increased from 1,628 on Sept. 1 to 1,943 on Sept. 29.
A reader asked whether fast-food workers are required by law to receive a vaccination against hepatitis A and, if not, why.
Franklin County Health Department Director Judy Mattingly said the Kentucky Food Code does not require an immunization but mandates “extensive hand washing.” Workers can be required to wear gloves when handling certain foods, Mattingly said.
“If the food code is followed, and followed thoroughly, then you can prevent the spread of hepatitis A,” she said.
That said, Mattingly said the Food Code changes “fairly regularly” and the Kentucky General Assembly, particularly if the ongoing outbreak continues, may decide to take action in its 2019 session related to hepatitis A, which has affected a majority of counties in the state. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regularly puts out a Food Code and states decide to adopt it for use, Mattingly said. Kentucky currently uses the FDA’s 2005 edition as the basis for its Food Code.
Still, some fast-food restaurants in Franklin County are requiring employees to be vaccinated. While Mattingly declined to name them, she said there are five such restaurants, one of which is the Hardees on U.S. 127 where a case of hepatitis was confirmed.
Generally, Franklin County Health Department workers travel to the restaurant to provide the vaccinations, Mattingly said. However, because employee turnover in the fast-food industry is high, she said the Health Department leaves vouchers at the restaurants that can be redeemed by the new employees. New employees travel to the clinic to redeem the voucher, she said.
Mattingly said it’s likely that the ongoing hepatitis A vaccination will continue for “a long time,” saying that counties across Kentucky are continuing to see an uptick in the number of cases but that with proper precautions it’s possible to avoid becoming infected. What’s more, public schools now require students to be vaccinated against hepatitis A.
“As long as children who are current on their hep A vaccination, there’s nothing to worry about, even if they are served by someone who didn’t practice proper hand washing,” Mattingly said.
She also stressed that those at greatest risk for hepatitis A include the homeless and those who volunteer with the homeless as well as people who have been in jail recently or use illicit drugs.
Hepatitis A is a viral infection of the liver that can cause loss of appetite, nausea, tiredness, fever, stomach pain, brown-colored urine and light-colored stools. Yellowing of the skin or eyes may also appear. People may have some or none of these symptoms. It could take up to seven weeks after being exposed to the virus for someone to become ill.