More than 2,000 confirmed cases in Florida as of Aug. 3, with Indian River County now part of the outbreak

TREASURE COAST – In response to the state’s rising tide of confirmed hepatitis A cases and the current national outbreak, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees declared a Public Health Emergency Aug. 1 to emphasize the importance of vaccination as a form of prevention.

“I am declaring this Public Health Emergency as a proactive step to appropriately alert the public to this serious illness and prevent further spread of hepatitis A in our state,” he said. “The best way to prevent hepatitis A is through vaccination. It is important that we vaccinate as many high-risk individuals as possible in order to achieve herd immunity.”

Florida Health Department Martin County spokesperson Renay Rouse explained the surgeon general’s use of the “herd immunity” expression Aug. 6.

“It really is a term, and you want to protect the herd by rallying around,” she said. “We’re also blocking out viruses that way, sort of like circling the wagons. It’s an expression not real commonly used outside of the medical community.”

The day after Dr. Rivkees’ declaration, Indian River County officially jointed the outbreak status with its fifth confirmed case of the virus, now giving the infamous title to the entire Treasure Coast region. Martin County has the highest number of confirmed cases – 32 as of Aug. 3, with four of those victims dying from complications of the virus – followed closely by St. Lucie County with 30 confirmed cases. While investigators found no smoking gun as to the source of the Martin County outbreak, the fifth Indian River County victim was a recently-hired food service worker in a Vero Beach pizzeria. In order to avoid further spread of the disease in that spot, Authorities have asked anyone who ate or drank at Pizza Mia, 1115 21st St., between July 19 and July 23 to get vaccinated for the virus and contact their healthcare providers if they experience symptoms. The owners of the establishment, Peter and Lydia Schaeperkoetter, acknowledged the employee who was since hospitalized via social media.

“Our entire staff received the vaccination, and we recommend you do as well since this is probably not an isolated case,” they wrote on their Facebook page.

In a press release issued Aug. 1 detailing the Florida surgeon general’s declaration, Ms. Rouse emphasized the need for at-risk individuals or those with compromised immune systems to get vaccinated.

“This declaration signals to healthcare providers the importance of screening and vaccination for all individuals considered at high risk for contracting hepatitis A,” she said. “While anyone can contract hepatitis A, individuals who are considered by the Centers for Disease Control and the Florida Department of Health to be high risk include those who are experiencing homelessness; intravenous and non-intravenous drug users; men who have sex with other men; individuals in an emergency room or other acute care setting, after being administered an opioid antagonist, such as naloxone; individuals working with homeless persons or intravenous drug users outside of healthcare settings; and first responders.”

Dr. Rivkees and Lieutenant Governor Jeanette Nuñez paid a personal visit to Stuart July 10 at the invitation of Rep. Toby Overdorf to hold a roundtable discussion on the local outbreak with Sen. Gayle Harrel and Pro Tempore MaryLynn Magar. Rep. Overdorf and other local officials had expressed consternation that Florida health officials and CDC scientists could find no link between the four Palm City residents who had died as a result of complications from the virus. Dr. Rivkees admitted that Martin County had suffered from the effects of the virus worse than other areas with higher numbers due to the deaths.

“This affects the entire state, but some people have been hit particularly hard in Martin County, and so we want to learn about what is going on here and how we can make a difference going forward,” he said last month. “I have been impressed to hear how proactive Martin County has been with their vaccination and education efforts to address the hepatitis A outbreak in their community. The fact remains that while we continue to investigate the causes as to why this outbreak is happening and find ways to mitigate the effects of this disease, vaccination and education remain key components to prevention.”

Ms. Rouse confirmed via email Aug. 6 that the Health Department in Martin County has given 2,800 hepatitis A vaccinations, with some 10,500 having been administered in total throughout the county. She believes vaccination is the key to help stopping the further spread of the virus locally.

“The vaccine is available in the community via private healthcare providers, local pharmacies and the health department, which provides the vaccine for free on a walk-in basis, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily,” she said.

While Martin County residents have felt the personal loss of life due to the virus, many other counties around the state share in the outbreak status. These include Brevard, Citrus, Glades, Hernando, Hillsborough, Lake, Liberty, Manatee, Marion, Okeechobee, Orange, Pasco, Pinellas, Sumter, Taylor and Volusia, in addition to the other counties of the Treasure Coast. As of Aug. 3, Pinellas County holds the record with 333 confirmed cases, followed by 190 in Volusia and 118 in Hillsborough County.

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