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Hepatitis news affecting Beaver County residents in different ways

No one yet knows if the nation's biggest hepatitis A outbreak was caused by what someone did or did not do with his or her hands. But hands are very revealing of the effects folks in Beaver County are feeling in its wake.

Richard Lees' hands have been shaking.

"I'm actually shaking now," the 51-year-old disabled veteran said this weekend as he sat in the dining room of his house on 131/2 Street on the edge of Beaver Falls.

He's felt like a prisoner there this month because he's been anxious and afraid -- anxious that he might have gotten hepatitis A from eating at the Chi-Chi's restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall and afraid that he might give the illness to relatives if he comes in contact with them.

He's even afraid to drink out of the same glass as his wife, Georgia, who he says has been so anxious that she asked her doctor for prescription medication.

As he put it, "Each time another person dies, you say, 'Who's next?' "

The facts say the risk of dying is low. But they also say three people in the area have died, which raises the emotional stakes.

The Lees couple, who dined at the restaurant on Oct. 24, were among nearly 9,000 people who received precautionary shots of immune globulin at Beaver County Community College and other state Department of Health clinics. But the antibody treatment only lessens the chance of acquiring the disease, which Lees has been ravenously researching in the media and on the Internet. He learned it was too late to get a vaccination.

When he got diarrhea early last week, he was so worried that he made an appointment with his doctor, who, like others in this area, has been deluged. The results of his blood and liver tests came back negative for hepatitis A.

Yet still he's fearful. Lees figures he won't feel safe until he makes it through the possible incubation period, which he's read can be up to 50 days from exposure.

"I'm still sitting on pins and needles, because I don't know and I won't know until mid-December," he said. Meanwhile, he's still washing his hands a lot and sleeping very little.

He said he doesn't trust the Health Department as much as the lawyer he's now working with, who is a nationally known expert on foodborne illness cases.

Lees scoffed at the officials who ate sandwiches at the mall during a Friday forum to show that it is safe. "I think a lot of things being said here [are] to help prevent a panic."

Plenty of other people continue to have questions and concerns, especially those among the more than 500 who have been diagnosed with and are suffering from the disease. Others, like Lees, worry they might still get it, even if their risk looks almost nil. Not everybody is getting or understanding all the information about the outbreak, and rumors and misinformation don't help.

"Messages are hard to get out there," said Health Department spokesman Richard McGarvey, who said officials understand the concern. "You can imagine, we're talking about somebody's health, and that's one of the things people worry the most about."

He praised the media for its role in helping disseminate correct information but said some misconceptions continue.

One is that the outbreak spread to other restaurants. "We just have no evidence of that whatsoever," McGarvey reiterated. "Certainly if we thought there were other restaurants where patrons were at risk we'd let people know."

But that probably wouldn't assure Lees, who said, "The thing is, you don't know who to believe."

West Aliquippa's April Davis ate at Chi-Chi's with her new husband, Ed, their three children and five other relatives and friends after their civil wedding ceremony on Oct. 24. All but the infant received the antibody shots, and everybody seems to be doing OK so far. But Davis said her mom recently put questions in her mind by mentioning other treatment she heard they could get (but that may be for a different type of hepatitis).

Davis has called the state information line (1-877-724-3258) but wasn't satisfied with the scripted answers. "They actually can't tell us like a doctor would." She said her family is holding its own and is ready to contact a doctor if they do show any symptoms. "I can't believe how many people have this."

As she wrapped a blanket around three grandchildren at Saturday's Light Up Night celebration on Rochester's town square, Karen Charlton said, "I wasn't concerned for myself at all. I was concerned someone I knew might have eaten [at Chi-Chi's], because it's so widespread." She now knows of four co-workers at Phoenix Glass Co. in Monaca who did and who are waiting to see whether they develop the illness. But she said life at the factory goes on.

Certainly, the fear factor isn't evident, even at the epicenter. This weekend, next to the closed Chi-Chi's, plenty of hands were busy eating at the mall's food court. This despite the prominent sign that has transformed the adjacent customer service desk into the "Foodborne Illness Information Center."

A nurse at the state health department's temporary information table farther inside the mall (where it will remain this week) said about 150 mall-goers stopped with questions Saturday, but said it was a calm day.

Still, it was impossible not to notice, in the restroom, the hands of a young man wearing the uniform of a mall pretzel shop. They were completely covered in soap suds as he scrubbed them vigorously, just as he's supposed to.

A block away from where George Lees fretted about the risks of eating out, Karen Murdoch stirred sauce in the tidy basement kitchen of the First Assembly of God. She was helping out at the benefit spaghetti supper her niece and a friend were holding for their senior project at Beaver Falls High School.

The niece, Ashley Alstadt, said she hoped people wouldn't stay away. The outbreak sure hasn't stopped her and her friends from going out to eat. "If anything, we're more terrified about eating at our school," she said with a grin.

Murdoch, who's worked as a waitress for more than 25 years, said business is coming back up at the Clinton restaurant where she works. She feels for the victims but believes people who stopped eating out in general overreacted. "You have to eat anyways. People could pick up bad meat at the grocery and take it home."

Ashley's mom, Cathy Alstadt, agreed. "We've eaten out through this whole thing."

But Ashley's grandmother, Irene Walker, isn't so carefree. She got concerned when she heard that one person who died from the hepatitis had a history of diabetes, because she's diabetic, too. Her other health conditions and age -- 70 -- seemed to put her more at risk, so she went last week to the state Health Department's Vanport office. But she said workers there would not give her a shot because she was not exposed and does not live with someone who has the disease.

She's worried that she still could contract it, especially if it turns out the outbreak was caused by produce such as green onions that could have been shipped to other restaurants. But she's not worried enough to stop eating green onions, which she loves. She's just been washing them more thoroughly, and discarding the outer layers.

"You can't live in fear," said Shelby Milness, 30, of New Brighton, holding her 4-month-son at Rochester's Light Up Night.

"I'm living my life," agreed her 27-year-old sister, Angie Higby.

They have a mutual friend who ate at Chi-Chi's and who is so sick at home with hepatitis that her husband had to take a leave from work to care for her and their two children.

But as bad as they feel for her, they haven't stopped eating out.

Higby was holding her 18-month-old daughter, Jackie, who was holding a free holiday cookie. Nodding toward the table where the cookie came from, Higby said, "I'm going to eat a hot dog now."

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