MARTIN COUNTY— State and local health officials are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention trying to pin down the source of hepatitis A in Martin County.
As of Friday afternoon, all three agencies didn’t have any specific leads and are not investigating specific restaurants in the county.
There have been 19 cases of the virus in Martin County, with three confirmed deaths in Palm City resulting from complications of the virus.
“To Martin County residents, I want to assure you that we’re committed and diligently working to investigate the cause of these local hepatitis A infections and we will leave no stone unturned,” said Lt. Gov. Jeanette Núñez during a Friday morning news conference at the Martin County Sheriff’s Office.
“I am having daily meetings with the Department of Health to measure our progress in this investigation and as we continue to investigate, we will work closely with other states, as well as the CDC.”
Martin County was considered a “high risk” area when five cases of the virus were confirmed on April 1.
Jeffrey Kirsch and his wife, Nancy Kirsch, both 62, were found dead in their home in Palm City on March 28. Lee Collins, 61, died March 31. All died from “complications of hepatitis A,” according to health officials.
Dr. Carina Blackmore, state epidemiologist, said it is unusual for three people with the virus to die in one county in less than a month.
There’s been a clustering of hepatitis A cases in Palm City, she said, but she believes that is random.
Usually, the virus causes stomach flu-like symptoms for most people such as nausea, stomach pain and jaundice — yellowing of the eyes and skin. It’s rare for people to die.
Núñez said the outbreak in Martin County has been linked to a statewide outbreak.
More than 1,200 cases of the virus have been reported in Florida since the beginning of the year. Other counties around large cities have had more cases.
Blackmore said Hillsborough, Orange and Pasco counties have had more than 100 cases; Pinellas County has had more than 200 cases this year.
On the Treasure Coast, St. Lucie County has two cases and Indian River County has none.
The virus is spread by food or water contaminated by just a trace amount of fecal matter of someone infected with hepatitis A. Blackmore said signs of the virus usually start around two to six weeks after a person is exposed to the virus.
State Rep. Toby Overdorf said people in the food business should communicate with their employees to be proactive and wash their hands.
“To our restaurateurs and to our business owners, have a talk with your staff,” he said. “Have a talk with your people … educate them on the clean health that they should be having in association with this.”
Blackmore said finding out how infected people made contact with the virus is a ” very meticulous process.”
“We want to go back and look at cases and work with family members of those that are deceased, unfortunately, to verify what activities they had, where they ate a month ago or six weeks ago,” she said. “When we get a picture of that, we will start to understand what actually happened in Martin County.”
How to get vaccinated
State Sen. Gayle Harrell said uninsured and under-insured people, if they qualify, can receive hepatitis A vaccines for free if they go to their local health department.
Residents and visitors can be vaccinated at local pharmacies and by their primary care physicians. Many insurance companies do not typically cover the cost of the vaccine, health officials said.
The price for the vaccine is about $140, said Scott Samples, director of marketing and communications for Cleveland Clinic Martin Health.
Laurie Gaylord, the superintendent for the Martin County School District, said since the district was notified about the outbreak, all schools in the area were thoroughly cleaned with a solution that specifically fights off hepatitis A. She said school buses for the region also are being cleaned with the same solution.
“We’ve been very proactive about this,” she said.