Tackling San Diego’s Hepatitis A Outbreak

The City’s three-step plan for vaccination, sanitization and education – will it be enough?


Ricky Gutierrez

Police respond to a homeless man, discovered by student Sherman Coates (right), loitering in a toilet on campus, Sept. 27.

Paige Forrester, Staff Writer

According to a recent update by San Diego’s Health and Human Services agency, as of Sept. 27, 17 people have died from Hepatitis A in the county since March. In addition, there have been 17 more cases and 10 more hospitalizations within the last month. With 461 confirmed cases in the San Diego region since November 2016, this is the largest Hepatitis A outbreak in decades, with the upsurge beginning last November but not identified until March. The youngest person to be infected was a five-year-old who had not been previously vaccinated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hepatitis A (also known as Hep A) is spread through person to person contact. A gesture as simple as shaking hands, being in close proximity, or eating food prepared by someone infected with the virus, can pass it on. Basic prevention starts with always washing hands after using the bathroom or touching an infected person.

If Hep A can be traced back to a restaurant where a food handler was infected, the situation can be kept under control. But San Diego officials have found this particular outbreak difficult to combat because the disease has mainly affected the homeless population since many do not have access to public restrooms for basic personal hygiene.

On Wednesday, Sept. 27 at City College a man who campus police said was homeless was found inside the BT building bathrooms by student Sherman Coates, who said, “It smelled like it does under the bridge,” referencing the bridge over 17th Street and Island Avenue. When asked why he alerted campus police Coates said, “I knew there was an outbreak and I didn’t want that being here on campus.”

According to Coates the man told him that he was feeling very ill and needed to lie down. City Times tried to interview the homeless man but was denied by campus police. City Times checked the BT building bathroom two hours after the homeless man was removed but the particular toilet stall had not been cleaned.

In a statement on Monday, Sept. 25, the City of San Diego pledged to install 63 handwashing stations downtown, possibly including additional locations in Hillcrest and our beach communities. The city is following three steps to help stop the virus from spreading, which are to vaccinate, sanitize, and educate. In order to vaccinate, American Medical Response (AMR) will offer 1,278 free vaccinations in the Downtown area. A clinic was held two weeks ago at Golden Hall in downtown with hundreds of people taking advantage of the free vaccinations.

When asked if they knew about the growing Hepatitis A outbreak, Natalia Maggio and Lucas Thornton, both City College students, responded that they had heard but did not know much about Hepatitis A. “I’m kind of concerned but it seems like it’s getting a little bit better…I heard they were giving out a lot of free shots and spraying bleach on all the sidewalks.” Maggio said. She said she was not too concerned about contracting the virus since she commutes by car to school. Thornton on the other hand, said he was concerned because he regularly takes public transit to get to school.

Despite the ongoing efforts to curb Hep A in San Diego, Kenny Shaw, a homeless San Diego resident, said he disagrees. “The handwash is a joke…the City isn’t doing enough, all they do is sanitize the sidewalk.” Shaw continued that there are only a few places for the homeless to shower and use the bathroom, therefore even if the City bleaches the sidewalk those who are infected will just return to the newly cleaned area.

The City College and San Diego Downtown area has a very condensed population. Anyone who frequents downtown comes into contact with hundreds of people every day, some of whom could be infected with the virus. When asked how he protects himself during the Hep A outbreak, MTS bus driver Tracey Harvey said, “lots and lots of hand sanitizer.”

According to the City of San Diego, expanding efforts to combat the Hep A outbreak will include sanitizing locations in downtown, Midway, Ocean Beach, Pacific Beach, and the Hillcrest area. In order to protect citizens, the city is advising residents to regularly wash hands with soap and water for roughly 20 seconds, get vaccinated, and to be aware of their surroundings when using public facilities.