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State hiring part-time workers to combat Hepatitis A

A microscopic image of the Hepatitis Avirus, taken by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The state has hired part-time workers to help abate the growing hepatitis A public health emergency, Department of Health Secretary Scott Rivkees told lawmakers on Wednesday.

Rivkees told the House Health Quality Subcommittee that his department has used $3 million in funds from county health departments to hire additional workers.

Rivkees, who is also the state's surgeon general, told subcommittee Chairwoman Colleen Burton, R-Lakeland, that $3 million would be enough "for the current fiscal year," which ends June 30.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, questioned Rivkees about staff at the county health departments.

Smith noted that the budget for the current fiscal year eliminated 572 positions from the state health agency.

Many of those posts, Smith said, came from local health departments. Hepatitis A is most prevalent in portions of the central part of the state, including along the Interstate 4 corridor, which Rivkees said is a heavily traveled area of the state.

"You have a number of stops there, facilities as well. It's consistent with what's seen in other areas where you have high-traffic highway corridors where you will typically see these outbreaks," Rivkees said.

Hepatitis A is a virus that affects the liver and can be deadly. It is spread through such things as food or drinks that have been contaminated with fecal matter from people with hepatitis A, or from close contact with infected people. It also can be spread through sex and intravenous drug use.

As of Sept. 14, Florida has had 2,540 reported cases of hepatitis A.

High risk populations include the homeless, drug users, and gay men.

Although it is one of the most highly populated areas of the state, South Florida has fewer hepatitis A infections than other regions.

According to the latest health department reports, there are 30 hepatitis A cases in Miami-Dade County and 15 in Broward County.

Pasco County, meanwhile, leads the state in the number of reported cases, with 391.

When asked by one of the House committee members Wednesday why infection rates in South Florida are so low, Rivkees said the region was prepared.

"I recently visited with the county health department in Miami-Dade. This was something that they told me they recognized was coming in early 2018," Rivkees said.

Health officials in the area "launched a very aggressive hepatitis A vaccination campaign early on," Rivkees said.

The surgeon general credited the inoculations for the region's low infection rate.

"I cannot emphasize enough, this is a vaccine-preventable disease," he said.