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Pa. hepatitis cases rise past 500

/ Source: The Associated Press

The number of people infected in a hepatitis A outbreak linked to a western Pennsylvania restaurant has exceeded 500 and is likely to continue rising for another week, state Health Department officials said Saturday.

Three people infected with the virus have died, and thousands have lined up for inoculations since the outbreak was reported in early November among people who ate at a Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant.

A Chi-Chi’s executive said the company has adopted “extraordinary measures” companywide, including sickness logs for employees and asking workers to sign “wellness statements” asserting they are not ill, in an effort to prevent similar outbreaks elsewhere.

As of Saturday, 510 cases of hepatitis A had been confirmed in the outbreak, Pennsylvania Health Department spokesman Richard McGarvey said.

The state offered antibody inoculations to anyone who ate at the restaurant after Oct. 22 — the latest date such shots could help since they must be administered within two weeks of exposure. That means people exposed before Oct. 22 could still start showing symptoms through next weekend. The virus can lead to liver failure.

"We still haven’t reached that date, when all those inoculations are going to help,” McGarvey said Saturday. After Nov. 22, health officials expect the number of new infections to level off and eventually stop, he said.

About 8,500 people received the shots because of the outbreak linked to a Chi-Chi’s at the Beaver Valley Mall, about 25 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

All 60 employees of that restaurant will remain under medical supervision until each has been medically cleared, said Bill Zavertnik, chief operating officer at Louisville, Ky.-based Chi-Chi’s. The restaurant is closed until Jan. 2.

Eleven employees who tested positive for hepatitis A remain under medical care and the rest were given antibodies, Zavertnik said.

The company already certifies its managers in food handling safety, in addition to the new employee health measures initiated at all of its restaurants, scattered from Minnesota to the mid-Atlantic states.

Zavertnik said Chi-Chi’s food purchasers are cooperating with investigators to identify the source of the outbreak and the company has hired an outside medical expert to work with the federal Centers for Disease Control and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Health investigators say they still don’t know the source of the virus. They’re looking at foods, including green onions, which are difficult to clean and have been linked to smaller outbreaks in other states.

Chi-Chi’s removed green onions, or scallions, from all of its restaurants as a precaution, Zavertnik said.

Richard Quartarone, a spokesman for the Georgia Division of Public Health, said that while outbreaks in September in Tennessee and Georgia, neither linked to Chi-Chi’s restaurants, were believed to have stemmed from green onions, investigators don’t know how the virus got there and the two cases involved different strains of the virus.

“It’s possible they’re connected. It could have been a grower or a contaminated water source,” he said. “Was there a sewer break at the time the onions were picked? Or was it people picking and bunching them?”

Zavertnik wouldn’t comment on lawsuits that have been filed as a result of the outbreak. He said he didn’t know details about the restaurant’s green onion supplier.