Starbucks employee's hepatitis A diagnosis sparks rush to vaccinate N.J. customers

Starbucks and Amazon Kitchen products are displayed together at a new Starbucks store, its first-ever in partnership with Amazon Go that lets customers check out without a cashier, during a preview of the store which opens on November 18, 2021, on Manhattan's East side in New York City, New York, U.S., November 16, 2021. Picture taken November 16, 2021. REUTERS/Mike Segar
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A New Jersey county is scrambling to vaccinate people against hepatitis A after a Starbucks employee tested positive for the highly contagious liver infection, with thousands of customers potentially exposed.

Hundreds of people turned up to a pop-up vaccine clinic near the Gloucester Township Starbucks location on Friday and Saturday after learning that the food handler had worked multiple days this month while infectious, according to county officials.

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The Camden County Health Department on Friday advised any unvaccinated member of the public who visited the Starbucks at 1490 Blackwood Clementon Road on Nov. 4, 5, 6, 11, 12 or 13 to get the hepatitis A vaccine "as soon as possible" and no later than 14 days after contact.

The department was notified on Wednesday that the Starbucks worker had tested positive for hepatitis A, and an investigation was begun immediately. The venue was closed until all its employees could be vaccinated, health officials said.

"The county health department has been working closely with the patient and the staff at the Starbucks to address the situation," Camden County Health Officer Paschal Nwako said in a statement. "Our highest priority is ensuring everyone involved remains safe and healthy. The patient is not currently working, and close contacts have been identified."

Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter, even in microscopic amounts, from contact with objects, food or drinks contaminated by the feces or stool of an infected person, health officials said. Members of the Food Surveillance Unit visited the store on Wednesday and conducted an inspection, which showed no evidence of food-safety violations.

County spokesman Dan Keashen said he and his daughter were among the thousands possibly exposed to hepatitis A after visiting the Starbucks. Both he and his daughter are in "good health," he said. Keashen received his vaccination on Thursday, and his daughter had been vaccinated previously.

Health officials have so far vaccinated 782 patrons, plus 17 Starbucks employees, and will be opening the clinic again on Wednesday for anyone who missed out over the weekend, Keashen said.

To date, no one else has tested positive as a result of the exposure. Hepatitis A is very contagious, and people can spread the virus before they feel sick.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the symptoms of hepatitis A can last up to two months and include fatigue, nausea, stomach pain and jaundice. Most people do not have long-lasting illness or liver damage. In rare cases, hepatitis A can cause liver failure and even death; this is more common in older people and in people with other serious health issues, such as chronic liver disease.

Since the hepatitis A vaccine was first recommended in 1996, cases in the United States have declined dramatically. The CDC recorded 12,474 cases of hepatitis A in 2018, the latest available data, although officials estimated the actual number of cases that year was probably closer to 24,900 because some people don't ever get diagnosed.

A single shot of the vaccine can help prevent hepatitis A if given within two weeks of exposure, according to the CDC. Many children born after the year 2000 have probably already been vaccinated, according to Camden County health officials. The vaccine was added to the U.S. routine early childhood inoculation schedule in 2006.

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