Hepatitis A outbreak strikes Salt Lake County’s homeless population

SALT LAKE COUNTY, Utah -- The Salt Lake County Health Department is trying to stop an outbreak of a deadly virus that has already taken lives in California.

Health officials have discovered 21 cases of Hepatitis A among homeless people in Salt Lake County.

“This is a significant increase,” said Dr. Ilene Risk, Salt Lake County Health Department Epidemiologist. “We would typically see one or two cases during this time period.”

This particular strain of Hepatitis has killed 16 people and infected more than 500 people in California. The virus has now spread to Arizona and Utah. So far the virus has mostly infected homeless people and recreational drug users.

Health officials have been visiting campsites, shelters and anywhere the homeless gather to tell them about the outbreak. They say "Operation Rio Grande" has made it harder to contact homeless people because they no longer gather at a central location.

“We have two strategies. We have been vaccinating and have been educating, so we have reached out and have vaccinated over 750 people, mostly at-risk people and those who provide services to at-risk people like police, fire and emergency medical technicians.”

Health providers spent nearly a day at the Rescue Mission of Salt Lake City to educate, test and vaccinate. John Mayo was eager to get the vaccination.

“It’s free," Mayo said. "It don’t cost you a dime, and it will help you with your life and your health."

The Rescue Mission has increased their training for people handling food, and signs have placed throughout the building reminding people to wash their hands.

“That’s my biggest concern, is because the capability of the hygiene problems they have: it can spread rapidly,” said Don Nicholson, Rescue Mission House Manager. “Our business is to help our friends on the street and that’s what we’re here for.”

Hepatitis A can be spread by a person who did not wash their hands properly after going to the bathroom. It can be prevented by getting a vaccination and washing your hands frequently.

“This should not be a concern for the general population,” added Dr. Risk. “People should be aware there is an outbreak of Hepatitis A and they should be up to date on their vaccinations. Period.”

The Road Home, a shelter in the Rio Grande district, issued a statement Wednesday evening:

"The Road Home is working with the Salt Lake County Health Department and community partners to help mitigate the spread of hepatitis among our clients, which has included hosting Health Department hepatitis vaccination clinics multiple times at both our Salt Lake Community Shelter and Midvale Family Center. We are thankful to the Salt Lake County Health Department for their efforts in dealing with this issue."