Hundreds line up for Hepatitis A vaccine after UWS food market worker falls ill

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(PIX11) – The recent diagnosis of Hepatitis A in a food handler at an Upper West Side supermarket has not only spurred a massive turnout for free vaccinations against the virus, it also raises the issue of food safety at markets throughout the tri-state.

“Honestly, I’ve never really thought about it,” said a woman waiting in a line hundreds of people long outside of the MS 258 school on West 93rd Street.  “I mean like, it’s just something as a New Yorker you just don’t really think about.”

She was referring to the contagious condition that she and hundreds like her were waiting to be inoculated against.  She, and presumably many others among whom she stood, were in a line that snaked down the school’s fence, around a corner, along a wall and into the school’s auditorium, where a further line, 60 people long, waited for nurses and other medical staff to administer Hepatitis A shots.

The free inoculation site, set up by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, was the city’s reaction to a potentially very dangerous health scare.

“If you get sick and you go to your doctor, the doctor will do a blood test and send a sample to a laboratory,” said Health Department doctor Sharon Balter, regarding the way in which Hepatitis is detected.  If a blood sample from a patient tests positive for the virus that affects the liver, “the laboratory is required to report it to the Health Department,” said Balter.

She added that was the way in which her department learned about the worker at Westside Market. His job, at the outlet of the Manhattan supermarket chain on Broadway between 97th and 98th Streets, is to cut up fruit before it’s sold, ready to eat.

The Health Department put out a warning Thursday “urging patrons who ate chopped, ready-to-eat fruit either in-store, through catering or delivery between August 9th and August 22nd to get hepatitis A vaccination as a precautionary measure.  Fruits involved,” the printed warning went on, ” include… watermelon cut into halves and quarters; peeled whole pineapples; and shelled and cut coconut.”

Dr. Balter pointed out to PIX11 News that Westside Market worked closely with the Health Department and made sure that any produce that the sick worker may have even had the potential of coming into contact with was thrown out.

However, when asked by PIX11 News if the store or the health department were able to protect customers from getting sick from items that the infected worker may have made contact with before his diagnosis, Dr. Balter responded, “That, obviously, we couldn’t do.”

Hepatitis A produces symptoms such as the yellowing of eyes and skin, fatigue, abdominal pain, nausea, and diarrhea.

There is no screening possible to detect whether or not a food worker has contracted the virus, unless he or she shows symptoms.  Noting that, any food handler, anywhere, could potentially be infected and pass on the virus to customers.

A visit to a randomly selected supermarket in Flushing, Queens, showed some conditions that can help prevent the virus from spreading.

At the GW Market on Northern Blvd., PIX11 News, saw and recorded clear evidence of workers who cut and handle produce doing the few things that the Department of Health requires for preventing foodborne illnesses.  The supermarket has high ratings on Yelp for cleanliness.

“We do ask people not to work when they’re sick,” said Dr. Balter, as she indicated Health Department guidelines for the prevention of foodborne illnesses.  Nobody at GW Market who as handling produce showed any sign of being sick.

Balter also said that the health department requires “that food handlers wear their gloves to protect the food, not just from hepatitis,” said Dr. Balter, “but from salmanella… and other bacteria.”

However, as Dr. Balter pointed out, glove wearing is not good enough.  “The most important thing you can do is wash yor hands for 20 seconds with soap under running water, and use a paper towel to dry your hands,” Balter said.

Still, that’s not enough to prevent somebody from getting sick from food that has come into contact with the fecal material of someone who is infected, which is the way the virus spreads.

In fact, in the very long line of people waiting for free hepatitis shots were the sick worker’s fellow employees from Westside Market.  They may, in fact, be good hand washers, but their presence in the inoculation line underscored the key factor in not getting sick from hepatitis — you have to have a shot.

“Hepatitis is a very safe and effective vaccine,” said Dr. Balter, who recommends that everybody get inoculated.

The Department of Health is offering free vaccinations at the following dates and times, at MS 258 on West 93rd between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues:

Saturday, August 24:  10am – 2pm
Sunday, August 25:  2pm – 6pm
Monday, August 26:  2pm – 8pm