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Hepatitis A outbreak on the decline in Florida

Local health officials are seeing some promising early numbers in 2020, but they remain cautious.

Florida health officials are seeing a decline in hepatitis A cases for the first time since declaring a public emergency over the sharply rising threat in August.

The number of new cases so far this month across the state is 142, significantly lower than the 198 reported around this time last January. In Pinellas County, a hot spot for the virus last year, early signs point to a decline in 2020.

"We’re cautiously watching the numbers, but we had no cases in December and only one thus far in January,” said Margarita Hall, spokeswoman with the health department in Pinellas County. “We haven’t relaxed our surveillance, but we’re encouraged, especially when we compare numbers to the 377 cases we recorded in Pinellas during 2019.”

She added: "We’re still encouraging those at higher risk to get vaccinated and to use good hand hygiene to prevent infection.”

The number of cases ballooned to 3,266 last year in Florida, which usually has only a few hundred cases annually. The state reported 548 cases in 2018 and just 276 the year before.

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Pinellas was the first county in the state to deploy “foot teams” where health officials went door-to-door at motels and other locations to vaccinate people at high risk of contracting hepatitis A.

County health departments also partnered with other groups in the community to vaccinate and educate about hepatitis A. BayCare, which operates hospitals in and around Tampa Bay, administered 465 hepatitis A vaccines in their local hospital emergency rooms last year, said Dr. Nishant Anand, BayCare’s chief medical officer.

“The first and foremost way to prevent contracting hepatitis A is hand washing,” Anand said. “If patients were showing the signs of symptoms, we would treat them. We implemented a rapid-diagnosis process to catch it earlier, and we would also vaccine people who most needed it.”

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Vaccinations are still available for free to at-risk communities through local health departments. That group includes people who were recently incarcerated, use drugs and are homeless, said Kevin Watler, spokesman with the health department in Hillsborough County.

“These three groups combined make up the vast majority of cases that we are seeing,” he said.

For others, the two-dose vaccine costs around $70 and can be covered by insurance.

Hepatitis A is contracted by fecal matter through contaminated food or water, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms include stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, yellow skin or eyes, diarrhea, lack of appetite, joint pain, fever and fatigue.