McDonald's hepatitis case remains a mystery


The state Department of Health may never know how a cashier at the McDonald's restaurant in Center Township contracted hepatitis A, a spokesman said.

It's not unusual to be unable to track down the source of the illness, Richard McGarvey said Tuesday. In the case of the McDonald's cashier, her illness was first reported to the state health department on Feb. 4.

Without being able to identify the source, health officials are unable to say whether her illness was related to the hepatitis A outbreak at the Chi-Chi's Mexican restaurant at the Beaver Valley Mall last year.

When information about the woman was released in February, McGarvey said there was no threat to customers because she was not involved in food preparation at the restaurant, which is in the parking lot of the Wal-Mart Plaza.

About 50 McDonald's employees were inoculated against the virus, which is spread by oral contact with fecal matter.

The Chi-Chi's outbreak, with the source identified as raw green onions served at the restaurant, sickened 660 people, killing three of them.

Most of the patrons and employees who were sickened ate at the restaurant between mid-September and mid-October.

However, of the 660 cases, 10 were identified as secondary. That means the patients didn't ingest food from the restaurant, but were sickened by someone who did.

McGarvey said that health officials won't know how widespread the outbreak actually was until the end of this year. That's because some people might have passed the virus without even knowing it because they did not show any symptoms of hepatitis A, which include jaundice and weakness.

At the end of the year, McGarvey said, health officials will take a look at the number of hepatitis A cases. Since only a "handful" of cases are reported in Beaver County each year, McGarvey said, investigators will have to see whether the numbers remain normal for 2004 or are up, which could indicate more secondary infections.

On Wednesday, Bill Zavertnik, Chi-Chi's chief operating officer, said the Center Township restaurant is doing well, bouncing back from a rough winter that kept customers away.

"The community continues to be supportive of us, and business has been solid. We are grateful for that," Zavertnik said.

People affected by the outbreak have until June 4 to submit forms to enter a mediation process to resolve claims against Chi-Chi's. The forms are available online at http://www.hepatitislitigation.com/proofofclaim.pdf.

Bill Vidonic can be reached online at bvidonic@timesonline.com.