Infected inmate spurs hepatitus A vaccination effort in county jails

The county health department is warning current and former inmates at two local jails that they may have been exposed to hepatitis A and should consider getting vaccinated.

According to the county Health and Human Services Agency and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, a female inmate who was at the Vista Detention Facility in North County on Feb. 19 and 20, and the Las Colinas Detention Center in Santee from Feb. 20 to Mar. 1, showed hepatitis A symptoms and had to be hospitalized after she was released from custody.

Dr. Eric McDonald, chief of the county’s Epidemiology and Immunization Services Branch, said Thursday that anyone who encountered the woman in either facility would not have been able to tell she was infected.

“This is somebody who was exposed in the community and was brought into custody while she was infectious, but her symptoms did not appear until after she had been released,” McDonald said.

With an incubation period of 15 to 50 days, hepatitis A, which spreads through fecal contamination, causes a person to become contagious about two weeks before their symptoms appear, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It’s a difficult feature of a virus that caused an ongoing outbreak across San Diego County. Tracking back to November of 2016, 584 people, most of them homeless and/or illicit drug users, have become infected. Twenty have died, though nearly all of those have had other significant illnesses.

In an email, the Sheriff’s Department said a total of 149 inmates — 31 at the Vista jail and the balance at Las Colinas — had contact with the woman. As of Thursday, 50 inmates had been released, one was on probation and 98 remained in custody.

“It’s the ones who have already been released that are harder to contact, and that’s why we’re making a public statement,” McDonald said.

He noted that the hepatitis A vaccine can still help even those who have already been infected as long as they receive their dose within two weeks of infection. While both of the exposure dates at the Vista jail are now outside that two-week window, anyone who was exposed more recently than Feb. 22 could still benefit from vaccination.

It’s a little early to know whether or not jails are in for a rash of new hepatitis A cases given the earliest possible exposure was 17 days ago as of Thursday, and the minimum incubation period for hepatitis A is 15 days.

“We aren’t aware of any additional cases, but, given the incubation period, we wouldn’t expect to start seeing any until right about now,” McDonald said.

Last year, the jails saw several hepatitis A cases pop up among inmates as the current outbreak spread. The county conducted a broad vaccination campaign among all inmates, delivering 8,000 doses to date, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

All inmates are now offered vaccination at booking.

It was not clear Thursday afternoon what percentage of current inmates were vaccinated during the indicated exposure dates.

paul.sisson@sduniontribune.com

(619) 293-1850

Twitter: @paulsisson

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