Eateries grapple with economic fallout from growing Hep A outbreak

Businesses whose employees have gotten Hep A grapple with economic fallout
Published: Aug. 11, 2016 at 10:19 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 11, 2016 at 10:59 PM HST
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(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Food establishments with employees who have been infected with Hepatitis A say they're taking a hit because of the stigma associated with the growing outbreak.

"In our case, it made the front page, but then when we are all cleared there's no follow-up announcement that everyone tested negative for the Hepatitis A virus," said Cyrus Tamashiro, president of Tamashiro Market, which shut down last Saturday after one of its employees was identified as having Hepatitis A.

"It would really be fair to the businesses if the Health Department would send out a press release letting everyone know that it's perfectly safe to come back and that it was definitely not because of anything that we did wrong."

State health officials still haven't determined the source of the food-borne outbreak, the biggest in the islands in decades. But they do believe the culprit is a food product with a long shelf life that's either dried or frozen.

As of Wednesday, 168 people have been sickened with Hepatitis A in the islands, including nine food service workers.

Small business owners say the longer it takes state investigators to narrow down the source of the outbreak, the more speculation is causing them some of them to suffer.

Tamashiro says he made the decision to voluntarily shut down the fish market Saturday while he waited for blood test results from all his employees.

He says $35,000 worth of fresh product had to be thrown out. But Tamashiro worries more about the impact to the store's reputation than the hit he took in retail.

"We hope that people realize that we did everything possible and the employee that got the Hepatitis A virus was not really at fault. Nobody blames him," Tamashiro said.

The fish market reopened on Wednesday and customers are trickling back in.

"It got me worried, but I know that they're really strict on their policy as far as keeping the place clean because I also bring my produce here -- fish and octopus," said customer Hurlden Kiesel.

"It could happen to anyone, pretty much, I think here on the island. You just never know. But it's always good to wash your hands and stay safe," Kiesel said, adding that he feels safe and will continue to shop at Tamashiro's.

The Baskin Robbins in Waikele -- one of the first businesses that was named at the outset of the outbreak -- has seen a 70 percent decline in sales over the last three weeks. Management says they're almost completely dependent on tourists because local customers think their ice cream is tainted.

But state officials say the businesses shouldn't be punished because a worker happened to get Hepatitis A.

"These facilities are absolutely safe to eat at," said Peter Oshiro, the state Health Department's Environmental Health program manager.

Oshiro says when the Health Department learns of a food service worker testing positive for Hepatitis A, the news has to be shared with the public, even though the chances of a worker passing the virus onto a customer is very low.

Oshiro says if there was any concern that the public was at risk, those businesses would not be allowed to stay open.

"There is no chance of you getting any infection from these places right now because the Hepatitis A worker has been isolated and all the existing employees were forced to get tested prior to coming back to work," said Oshiro.

The Health Department is asking for the public's help to narrow down and identify similarities between cases. Officials have posted a brief online survey they're asking everyone between the age of 18 and 85 to take. Only one survey is needed per household.

Largest Hepatitis A Outbreaks in the US
Here's a look at the largest Hep A outbreaks nationwide since 1996.
2003 Multi-state Restaurants 935 Unknown green onions/scallions
2016 (June 12-Aug. 1) Hawaii Unknown 168 (ongoing) 46 Unknown
2013 Texas Private homes 162 70 pomegranate seeds
1999 Texas Restaurant 121 Unknown unknown
1998 Texas Restaurant 94 Unknown unknown
1999 Texas Unknown 76 Unknown unknown
1999 Texas Restaurant 57 Unknown unknown
2001 Massachusetts Restaurant 53 Unknown
1998 Ohio Restaurant 42 13 green onions/scallions
1999 Michigan Unknown 40 Unknown Unspecified salad/sandwich
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

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