By Christopher Snowbeck, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
With interest in the hepatitis A vaccine running high, the Allegheny County Health Department has slashed the price of immunization shots to guard against the disease.
The Health Department has been receiving an additional 20 to 25 calls per day about the vaccine since the outbreak at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi's in Center, said spokesman Guillermo Cole. Travelers to developing countries routinely get shots to ward off the disease, but the new callers are all nontravelers.
"We were able to make a special purchase because of this outbreak and we have cut the price significantly," Cole said. Through the end of the year, it will cost adults receiving the first dose of the vaccine about half of what they would have paid earlier this year: $27 instead of $52.
Separately, the county Health Department said yesterday it will be sending information about all new hepatitis A cases to federal officials for the next two months. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can then help verify whether viral strains in the new cases are related to the strain that, as of yesterday, had sickened 615 patrons and workers at the Beaver County restaurant.
So far, the Health Department has received two reports of confirmed hepatitis A cases since the outbreak at the Beaver Valley Mall Chi-Chi's in Center. It's unlikely that either case represents a secondary infection from someone sickened in the Chi-Chi's outbreak, Cole said.
One woman who has tested positive was enrolled in an art class with someone sickened at Chi-Chi's, Cole said. But hepatitis A is spread by the inadvertent consumption of an infected person's fecal matter -- an unlikely occurrence in an art class.
"It's a bit of a stretch, but theoretically it's possible," said Cole, who noted the students shared a glass used for either cleaning brushes or dipping them in paint. "If we were dealing with the sharing of food or a drink glass, that might be more of a plausible scenario.
"These are not at this time considered secondary cases," he said. A state Health Department spokesman also said there have been no secondary cases.
It's not unprecedented for the county to see sporadic cases of hepatitis A, Cole said. There were 55 hepatitis A cases in the county during 2002, and 24 had been reported by September 2003.
On the vaccine front, there has been only a slight uptick in the number of people actually getting inoculated, Cole said. Some restaurants have inquired about getting shots for employees.
A Health Department advisory board on food safety issues will consider in January a proposal to require or recommend that food workers get vaccinated. The ultimate decision on the matter would rest with the county Board of Health.
Communities such as Branson, Mo., however, have vaccinated the majority of food workers, in part as a risk-management strategy for restaurants.
"Keep in mind, it's not a cure-all," Cole said. "If all the Chi-Chi's food workers were vaccinated against hepatitis A, this still might have happened." In fact, state health officials say they no longer think that the restaurant's employees were the source of the outbreak.
The hepatitis A vaccine is administered in two doses, with the second dose coming 6 to 12 months after the first. Through the end of the year, shots will cost $27 for adults and $21 for children -- down from the normal of $52 for adults and $30 for children. The full price -- as determined by the market at that time -- will be charged for the second dose, Cole said.
A federal bankruptcy court judge authorized yesterday that Chi-Chi's can spend, on an interim basis, up to $3,000 per claimant to reimburse out-of-pocket expenses for outbreak victims, said Jane Limprecht, spokeswoman for the federal government agency that oversees administration of bankruptcy cases.
Attorneys for victims reported last week that a plan had been reached in which claimants could get up to $20,000 each from Chi-Chi's for medical expenses, lost wages and reduced costs. Andy Weisbecker, a plaintiffs' attorney, said claimants might still be able to receive that higher sum, but the mechanics of doing so will be considered at a Dec. 11 hearing.
A Chi-Chi's attorney could not be reached for comment. The company filed for Chapter 11 protection on Oct. 8.
Chi-Chi's toll-free help line has been set up to take calls from 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The number is 1-800-328-7761.
For more information about the vaccine, call the Allegheny County Health Department at 412-687-2243.
(Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.)