Hepatitis A outbreak turns deadly in Salt Lake County

Apr 3, 2018, 6:10 PM | Updated: 9:50 pm

SALT LAKE CITY —  The ongoing Hepatitis A outbreak has claimed its first two lives in Utah. The Salt Lake County Health Department reported the deaths Tuesday.

Since last May, more than 200 people have been sickened statewide from the ongoing outbreak.

“It’s really sad that we have to report that people are dying because it’s a vaccine-preventable disease,” said Dr. Dagmar Vitek, medical director for the county health department. “Right now, the outbreak is impacting the high-risk population: the homeless, people who are using illicit drugs, and the incarcerated population.”

The first death happened in January. But, the health department did not get that death confirmation until Tuesday. The second hepatitis death occurred in late March. Both were adults. For privacy reasons, the health department cannot release their names.

The county has never seen a Hepatitis A outbreak like this, Dr. Vitek said. But, neither of those deaths presents a risk to the broader population.

“We’ve mounted an enormous vaccination campaign,” said Dr. Vitek.

The Salt Lake County Health Department and the state health department have been on the offensive with this outbreak since last August, administering more than 9,000 vaccines within that high-risk population. Health care workers are taking the vaccines and hygiene kits to shelters and homeless encampments throughout the county.

“They have been responsive. I would say the majority are,” said Terry Begay, Salt Lake County Health Department Medical Surge Director. She is a former cop, now a social worker, battling the hepatitis A outbreak on the streets.

“Usually, we have them come to us, to the clinics, she said. “This time we’ve had to go out to them.”

As medical surge director, she visits the shelters and homeless camps down by the Jordan River and in the foothills above the University of Utah. She vaccinates those who are willing and hands out hygiene kits.

“They’ve been very thankful for the most part,” Begay said. “It touches my heart.”

Begay has worked with the homeless before and she chokes back tears as she talks about her work, along with many other community partners, to turn back the tide of Hepatitis A.

“I feel like I’m really making a difference,” she said. “I feel like the health department is making a difference.”

Salt Lake County has recorded 148 cases of hepatitis A since the outbreak began last May. There have been 212 cases statewide.

“It was to be expected,” Dr. Vitek said of the deaths, “But, I’m really happy to say that because of all of these public health efforts we have a lower hospitalization rate and lower mortality rate than other states.”

Dr. Vitek said it’s still difficult to tell whether the outbreak has peaked because the incubation period for hepatitis A is up to 50 days.

“It looks like maybe it has peaked already and we are on the downward slope,” she said.

But, they are a long way from that declaration, as the community outreach expands.

“We can go out and touch that part of the community and let them know that we do care,” said Begay.

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Hepatitis A outbreak turns deadly in Salt Lake County