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Health News Florida

Pinellas Health Officials: County Hepatitis A Outbreak On The Decline

A nurse with the health department in Pinellas County delivered a hepatitis A shot to a restaurant employee in Gulfport this summer, part of the county's efforts to combat the virus. JULIO OCHOA/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA
A nurse with the health department in Pinellas County delivered a hepatitis A shot to a restaurant employee in Gulfport this summer, part of the county's efforts to combat the virus. JULIO OCHOA/WUSF PUBLIC MEDIA

Though hepatitis A cases are continuing to pop up throughout Florida, numbers in most counties are lower than they were at the peak of the outbreak last year.

The reduction has led Pinellas County, once a hotbed for the disease, to stop offering the vaccine to all residents for free.   

The county health department is still providing free vaccines to high-risk members of the public, like drug users, homeless people, and people involved in a hepatitis A investigation.

And residents who received the first part of the two-dose vaccine prior to Jan. 1 can still get the second part at no cost.

Pinellas had 377 hepatitis A cases in 2019 and 113 in 2018. The county opened up the no-cost vaccine option to all residents in late 2018, but as rates continued to spike, health officials decided to ramp up efforts to combat the spread.

Last June, the county began sending “ foot teams” into the community to deliver vaccines where high-risk people spent most of their time, including street corners and short-stay motels.

"That turned out to be very successful because we were able to grab a tremendous amount of people and vaccinate them that way," said health department spokeswoman Maggie Hall.

The state health department reports more than 800 people were vaccinated in Pinellas with that effort.

RELATED:  Read more of WUSF's coverage of hepatitis A in Florida

At the height of the outbreak last spring, the county was seeing dozens of hepatitis A cases a month. In recent months, rates have been in the single digits, with one case so far in January and none in December.

"But we’re continuing to monitor the situation and certainly have heightened surveillance,” said Hall.

Pinellas charges $70.66 for the two-dose hepatitis  A vaccine. Insurance typically covers it and assistance is usually offered for those who can’t afford it.

Hall still encourages anyone who is interested in protecting themselves to get the vaccine. She said another important way to prevent the spread of hepatitis A is to maintain good hygiene, as it’s passed through fecal matter.

Pasco and Hillsborough counties also saw high rates last year, with Pasco leading the state with 415 cases and Hillsborough posting 168. Both counties have seen reductions in recent months as well. Hillsborough has had one case so far this month and Pasco hasn’t had any.

Polk County, which had 76 cases of hepatitis  A last year – a moderate amount compared to other areas – has reported ten cases in the new year.

All three counties’ health departments offer free hepatitis A vaccines to high-risk populations and can assist people who are struggling financially.

The state health department tracks the number of hepatitis A cases and publishes regular updates.

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