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RI County Health Department: Still-sick McDonald’s worker handled food

Deirdre Cox Baker

Quad-City Times

July 22, 2009

The McDonald's in Milan, Ill., allowed a worker to continue to handle food after being diagnosed with an "acute" case of hepatitis A, a Rock Island County public health spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The Illinois Department of Public Health temporarily shut down the restaurant in mid-July and ordered vaccination clinics that ended up treating more than 4,600 people.

Meanwhile, four new cases of the disease were confirmed Wednesday in the Quad-City region, two of them in Scott County and two more in Mercer County.

Theresa Foes, the spokeswoman for the Rock Island County Health Department, laid out a timeline at a Wednesday afternoon news conference that showed management of the Milan McDonald's, 400 W. 1st St., was told July 13 that one of its employees had hepatitis A, a contagious disease that generally results in flu-like symptoms but is not as serious as other forms of hepatitis.

McDonald's was informed that day about health and safety regulations stating that sick employees should not be allowed to work until cleared by a health-care provider, Foes said. The business was told to: review, with its entire staff proper hand-washing techniques, distribute information the county provided about the disease, tell employees they were to report any indication of symptoms and make managers aware that they were to monitor employees for symptoms.

The next day, July 14, Foes said county health department employees led a hand-washing "intervention" at the McDonald's. The disease spreads when people do not wash their hands properly after using the toilet, and it can become a food-borne illness.

Late on July 15, it was found that a second McDonald's food handler was in the "acutely ill" phase of the infection and continuing to work at the Milan site, Foes said.

That finding caused the Illinois Department of Public Health to order the restaurant closed and for the county health department to organize public immunization clinics that were held Monday and Tuesday at Rock Island High School. People recommended to attend the clinics were those who ate at the McDonald's over periods of five and two days earlier this month. They received either a vaccination against hepatitis A or a dose of a drug called immune globulin.

Foes also said that a June 17 report of hepatitis A involving the first of two McDonald's employees confirmed to have hepatitis A was mailed to the health department and not received until July 13. By law, she said the disease is required to be reported within 24 hours by telephone or fax machine.

She did not elaborate except to say that cases of hepatitis B and hepatitis C involve forms that might be mailed since they must be reported within a week's time. Foes took no questions from the news media during the brief news conference.

Officials from Trinity Regional Health System and the Rock Island Sheriff's Department said Tuesday that they will conduct an investigation into the notification issue.

McDonald's helped public health officials, Foes said, by projecting the number of customers it may have had during the days in question, July 6-10 and 13-14. That helped guide health officials in terms of how many doses of vaccine to order for the clinics, she added. Preparations were made to treat 5,000 people, and state health department spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said the county received more than $200,000 worth of vaccine and drugs, about half of it at state expense.

Kevin Murphy, the owner of the Milan McDonald's franchise, issued Wednesday night this prepared statement: "Regarding this matter, the Rock Island County Health Department has repeatedly stated that they have not confirmed the source of the outbreak. In fact, they believe, based on the number of confirmed cases, that, most likely, there are multiple sources. When I was notified about this matter by the Rock Island County Health Department on July 13, I took immediate action to address their concerns. No one ill knowingly worked in my restaurant once I was notified. My restaurant was temporarily closed at the direction of the Rock Island County Health Department. My restaurant reopened on Saturday, July 18. Because this is a pending legal matter, it would be inappropriate to comment further or to speculate."

A class-action lawsuit was filed against the restaurant Tuesday in Rock Island County Circuit Court by a Quad-City area man, Cody Patterson, and his attorneys. The suit names the restaurant and Murphy as defendants. The attorneys estimate that the class action could reach 10,000 plaintiffs, and they are seeking damages of more than $50,000 for each plaintiff.

Public notices about the outbreak were sent to an entire region of northern Illinois, Arnold said. That was done because confirmed cases of the disease, at least 11 of them requiring hospitalization, were found in Mercer, Henry, Warren and Woodford counties in Illinois in addition to Rock Island County.

The Scott County Health Department also announced Wednesday that two individuals have tested positive for hepatitis A, making them the first people from Iowa to be sickened in the outbreak. Two new cases were reported Wednesday in Mercer County, bringing the total of confirmed cases to 23, most of them in Rock Island County.

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