Last year, officials at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department warned the city’s jail staff that it was only a matter of time before Hepatitis A made its way to Lexington.
The Fayette County Detention Center paid attention and began formulating a plan and training its staff on how to identify the contagious disease that has occurred throughout Kentucky, authorities said. That preparedness has helped as the detention center experienced a large increase in Hepatitis A cases in recent months.
In mid-September, there were just 13 cases of Hepatitis A in Fayette County. That number has ballooned to 100 by mid-December, according to health department data, and nine of them have been inmates at the jail, Lt. Matt LeMonds said.
LeMonds said the jail has worked with the health department to provide vaccinations for inmates. So far, 1,266 inmates have volunteered to get the Hepatitis A vaccination.
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None of the people diagnosed with Hepatitis A contracted the disease at the jail, LeMonds said. The jail has been consistently sanitized to further prevent the spread. The jail is currently housing a little more than 1,400 individuals, according to LeMonds.
“Most of (the infected individuals) found out here because they didn’t know, but there is no correlation ... I don’t know of any spreading in the jail,” he said.
Kevin Hall, the health department’s spokesman, said the jail has been “very proactive” in dealing with Hepatitis A.
“They started very early on to make sure people are as protected as possible,” he said. “It’s very easy for it to spread there with close contact and sharing of items.”
Jail staff members are not required to receive Hepatitis A vaccinations, though the immunizations are recommended if they come into contact with infected people, LeMonds said.
Lexington police officers are also not required to receive the shots, but the city is now discussing providing the two-dose vaccine for the police force, said Sgt. Donnell Gordon. Police officers often interact before they reach jail.
Hepatitis A is often spread when a person unknowingly ingests the virus from objects, food or drinks contaminated by small, undetected amounts of stool from an infected person, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. It can also spread from close personal contact with an infected person.
Symptoms of hepatitis A include fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, abdominal discomfort, dark urine and yellowing of the skin and eyes. People can become ill 15 days to 50 days after being exposed to the virus, the health department said.
Despite a sharp increase this fall in Hepatitis A cases, the protocol has not changed for police when arresting individuals, Gordon said. Officers are already urged to wear gloves because of the risk of diseases and the risk of drug absorption, he added. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that can cause health risks and death in small doses.
During roll call, “we do make the officers aware of the risk of Hepatitis A and the importance of wearing gloves,” Gordon said.
Although residents are paying closer attention to restaurant workers who get sick with Hepatitis A, just four of the 98 cases in Lexington involve food service workers, according to Hall. It’s the general public who is most at risk, he said.
“In November, the number of cases in Lexington doubled and it’s because people are not getting vaccinated,” Hall said.
The vaccine is given in two doses six months apart. It’s available from some medical providers and many pharmacies in Lexington, the health department said. It’s also available at the health departments’ Public Health Clinic by appointment. Call 859-288-2483 to schedule an appointment.
In Louisville, where Hepatitis A has been most prevalent, the number of cases began to level off last summer when more people got vaccinated, Hall said. He insists Lexington numbers will continue to climb until the community vaccinates.
“People in the community see it’s happening, in restaurants or in jails, but the general public is just as at risk,” he said.