Hepatitis A outbreak in NW Georgia growing along I-75 corridor, officials say

Hepatitis A outbreak in NW Georgia growing along I-75 corridor, officials say

BARTOW COUNTY, Ga. — Channel 2 Action News is taking a closer look at the hepatitis A outbreak in Georgia after a worker at a popular Mexican restaurant tested positive for the virus.

The number of hepatitis A infections reported in northwest Georgia has jumped from three to nearly 200 as the state deals with the outbreak.

Channel 2 Action News has learned it can be traced along I-75 from Tennessee through Georgia and into Florida.

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Northwest Georgia accounts for 43 percent of the state's recent outbreak.

We obtained a 10-county breakdown from health officials. Of the nearly 200 cases in that area, Catoosa County tops the list with 34.

"People who don't wash their hands after using the restrooms contaminate surfaces, contaminate food and contaminate drugs themselves," said customer Kasi Flynn.

That's why much of the Health Department's outreach has spilled into restaurants. This week we told you about a Cartersville Willy's employee who tested positive. That employee handled food and the virus can be spread through food and water.

"I think people need to understand this can explode into an even larger outbreak," said health director Dr. Zachary Taylor, who oversees the north and northwest Georgia Health District.

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Taylor pointed out drug users are at a huge risk for the virus that can spread to others easily.

The Health Department is offering free vaccinations in the area.

"Food service workers may or may not be at an increased risk  but a food service worker coming down with hepatitis A can be devastating for the business that they're working in," he said.

Health officials encouraged customers to get vaccinated and Willy's told us employees would have it done by Friday.

But health officials said they can't force employees to get vaccinations, only push for it.

"Their employers and they themselves can have peace of mind that they're not going to get hepatitis A," Taylor said.

Health officials also encouraged customers to get theirs.

There have been 300 reported cases in Georgia this year. To give you some perspective, there were only 24 cases in all of 2017.

The number involving restaurant workers is low but this is an important reminder that food safety rules are now more important than ever.

Food handlers are required to wear gloves and to wash their hands after using the restroom, but of course that means there needs to be soap.

We searched our archives and in the past year alone, we covered 14 restaurants in six local counties, penalized for not having soap at their sinks.