San Diego

Board of Supervisors Ratify Emergency Declaration for Hepatitis A Health Crisis

About 30 percent of cases are involving individuals who are not homeless or illicit drug users

What to Know

  • Anyone who may have been exposed to the virus can develop symptoms up to 50 days after the exposure.
  • The disease can be spread through sexual contact, as well as touching objects or eating food contaminated with the virus.
  • County officials say the best way to prevent hepatitis A is to get vaccinated

The Board of Supervisors unanimously ratified a public health emergency declaration Wednesday, following a Hepatitis A outbreak that has sickened hundreds and left 15 dead in San Diego County.

There was an atmosphere of unrest at the meeting Wednesday as various officials questioned why it has taking so long to address the health crisis with long-term solutions.

"Why can't the county just go into the City and implement measures?" asked Supervisor Diane Jacob.

Last Friday, the County's public health officer, Dr. Wilma Wooten, declared the emergency to raise the public's awareness regarding the health crisis. County officials recognized the Hepatitis A outbreak mainly impacting the region's homeless population back in March.

There have been more than 380 local cases of people contracting the virus since then.

County officials said they tried to deploy hand washing stations earlier but got caught up in the city's red tape. Within the city government, blame was also tossed around like a hot potato.

San Diego City Councilmember David Alvarez indicated that Mayor Kevin Faulconer was at fault for the slow progress.

"We were not made aware of it at the council level, clearly the city knew," said Alvarez. "The administration knew, I'm assuming someone at the Mayor's office knew this was happening, and the fact that there was no action is very concerning to me."

City spokesman Craig Gustafson pointed out that earlier this year Alvarez had two opportunities to vote in favor of providing more resources for the homeless and voted no each time.

"He can grandstand all he wants now that he is running for higher office, but when he had the opportunity to take action to help the homeless he sat on his hands. His past actions speak louder than today’s words," added Gustafson.

At first, county officials said most cases of the disease involved homeless individuals, illicit drug users or both. Currently, about 30 percent of the cases have involved individuals who are not homeless or illicit drug users, according to County officials.

That group may have frequent contact with the other high-risk groups, according to the County. Anyone who works or lives near the infected areas is at heightened risk.

City officials plan to sanitize the streets around homeless encampments with bleach.

A Bankers Hill resident, Ed Blitz, choked up at the meeting while explaining how horrible it was after he contracted the disease. He would like the public to know that the virus is affecting everyone, not only the homeless.

"When I turned yellow, let's put it that way. And my wife looked at me [and] said we're going to the emergency room because you're yellow. That's when we decided that I had it," snapped Blitz, who was diagnosed with Hepatitis A months after moving to the neighborhood.

"I traveled all over the world and here I am in San Diego and get Hep A," said Blitz. "I was very ill for seven weeks."

Fifteen lives have been claimed in the ongoing outbreak in San Diego County, with county health officers issuing new vaccine recommendations. Since the outbreak in March, about 19,000 have been vaccinated, Wooten said.

Of those vaccinations, 7,100 were administered to the at-risk homeless population, said Wooten. The County of San Diego distributed 1,400 hygiene kits to the homeless.

The vaccine is a two-part regimen, said Wooten. It may be difficult for health officials to locate the homeless individuals who received the first part of the vaccine to distribute their second inoculation.

Over the weekend, 40 hand washing stations were installed around heavily impacted areas to curb the spread of the disease. Proper hand washing habits and good hygiene can help prevent the disease, said County health officials. 

Hepatitis A is a serious disease that attacks the liver and can prove fatal. Vaccines are available at no charge to uninsured individuals at any of the county's public health centers.

On Sept. 19, the San Diego Central Library will host free hepatitis A vaccination clinics every third Tuesday of the month from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

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