Death Toll in San Diego Hepatitis Outbreak Rises Despite Cleanup Effort

SAN DIEGO (CN) – San Diego County health officials said Tuesday another person has died in the hepatitis A outbreak gripping the region, as the city works to remove tons of trash from streets and riverbeds to curb the public health crisis.

A total of 18 people in San Diego County have died from the disease, which spreads through contaminated food and water, contact with an infected person and poor sanitation.  Another possible death is awaiting confirmation by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, county public health officer Dr. Wilma Wooten told the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Tuesday.

As of Tuesday, there have been 490 cases of hepatitis A in San Diego County, with 342 of those who’ve contracted the disease – 70 percent – hospitalized to treat the illness.

The county has spent $3 million to curb the outbreak, including $1.3 million on vaccines. It expects to spend $1.5 million a month going forward until the outbreak has subsided. County health officials said at a press conference last month the outbreak could last six or more months.

Tuesday, officials said due to the long incubation period of the virus they expect more cases to be diagnosed in coming weeks. Recently, officials have seen an uptick in reporting, with two to three new cases reported daily.

County health officials also shed new light on the 26 percent of hepatitis A cases which are contracted by individuals who are not “high risk” – homeless or illicit drug users. Officials said the majority of those people who’ve contracted the disease are in close contact with someone from the “high risk” category, either sharing a kitchen, bedroom or bathroom.

Officials also doubled down on their decision not to divulge locations throughout the county where people are believed to have contracted hepatitis A, saying the information is irrelevant due to the long incubation period of five to seven weeks.

County health director Nick Macchione also dispelled concerns homeless encampments along the San Diego River could be introducing the virus into local waterways. He said no known cases associated with the outbreak have been caused by contaminated water.

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to keep in place the state of emergency related to the outbreak. Some supervisors suggested the financial burden of combating the disease needs to be divvied up among local cities.

Supervisor Kristin Gaspar asked if county officials have discussed long-term financial strategies with cities in the region to continue providing sanitation services such as portable hand-washing stations which have been set up across the county.

Wooten told Gaspar hand-washing stations are not something the county has provided in the past, but given that sanitation is important for curbing the outbreak, it was a necessary expenditure.  She said the $1.5 million the county estimates to spend monthly includes vaccines, which is the county’s responsibility and local cities cannot provide.

The city of San Diego also said Tuesday it’s removed 600 tons of trash from streets and riverbeds over the past six months in its effort to combat the spread of the virus. The city allotted $800,000 in its budget this year toward expanded cleanup efforts with a focus on downtown’s East Village, where many people lived in homeless encampments.

The encampments were recently broken up ahead of the opening of the city’s sanctioned homeless camp location, which opened Monday.

San Diego has also dedicated resources to cleaning up trash and debris along the San Diego River in Mission Valley, removing 12 tons of waste from the riverbed over the past week.

Officials estimate 90 percent of the trash picked up along the river can be attributed to homeless encampments.

The city has also been sanitizing streets with a bleach solution three times a week.


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