As Hepatitis A spreads, this Kentucky county requiring vaccinations for food workers

As Hepatitis A spreads in Kentucky, Boyd County and the city of Ashland recently passed measures requiring all food service workers to be vaccinated against the virus, and a neighboring Eastern Kentucky county is poised to join them.

Officials hope the laws will help curb the virus that has killed eight Kentuckians since August and infected more than 1,000, but the initiatives could be costly for groceries, restaurants and other businesses.

Greenup County, just north of Boyd, may soon pass similar legislation.

For restaurateur Tom Wright, who owns multiple restaurants in Ashland, the cost of an initial vaccination for his employees could surpass $10,000. The legislation in Boyd County and Ashland also requires workers to receive follow-up booster shots, which are administered six months after the first shot.

Wright said all his employees have now been vaccinated, and he paid for it out-of-pocket.

“It’s an expense I thought was worthy,” he said. “It’s a serious situation. We do everything we can every day to make sure that we do what’s proper and what’s right.”

Wright, though, questioned how long the legislation would be in effect, and said consumers should understand that the chances of catching Hepatitis A from a restaurant are “slim to none.”

According to data from the Kentucky Department of Public Health, Boyd County has one of the highest infection rates of Hepatitis A per capita in the state, with 134 reported cases since August 2017.

Symptoms of Hepatitis A resemble the flu — headaches, vomiting, diarrhea — and the disease typically spreads through close person-to-person contact, such as sex, or from sharing drug paraphernalia.

According to the New York State Department of Health, just 2 to 3 percent of Hepatitis A cases come from eating at restaurants.

Boyd County Judge-Executive Steve Towler said that as the number of infected individuals grew, officials felt like they had to take some sort of action to help curb the sometimes deadly virus.

“We’ve had so many cases, it’s almost an epidemic,” Towler said. “I think it is an issue that needs to be dealt with.”

Since the legislation passed last month, Towler said some have questioned how the county will enforce the new law and whether the decision was an overreach of regulation.

“There are some people that say we’re overstretching our boundaries, but I don’t think so,” Towler said. “If somebody challenges us on that, I think we would win in court.”

The county will enforce the law by asking for vaccination records during regular health inspections, Towler said. If a business cannot produce satisfactory records, then the inspectors will notify the county’s code enforcement officials.

Boyd County will continue to enforce the law until officials feel it is unnecessary, he said.

Ron Tackett, owner of Giovanni’s Pizza in Ashland, said he also paid for his 12 employees to be vaccinated.

“To me, if I have to spend 500 to 600 dollars, it’s worth it,” he said.

State health officials have remained silent about efforts by local governments to require vaccinations for food service workers.

Beth Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, said the cabinet was not familiar with the legislation and declined to comment further.

According to spokespeople for the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department and the Louisville Department of Public Health and Wellness, neither are considering implementing mandatory vaccines for food service workers.

Fayette County has had just one confirmed case of Hepatitis A since August, while Jefferson County has had more than 200. The state usually sees about 20 cases per year.

In Greenup County, which has had 46 reported cases since August, Judge-Executive Robert Carpenter said he has not heard any backlash from restaurant owners over the potential cost to their businesses.

He said the county could approve mandatory vaccinations for food service workers during the next scheduled fiscal court meeting on August 14.

“I think people are just expecting it, and I think the public is wanting it,” Carpenter said. “I just think its something we need to do.”

Will Wright is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Reach him at 859-270-9760, @HLWright