Somerville Finds Itself on Front Lines of NJ’s Battle Against Hep A Outbreak

Residents line up for free vaccinations after supermarket food handler is found to have contracted the highly contagious disease

For the second straight day, worried residents of Somerset County have lined up for free vaccinations against hepatitis A, in the midst of an outbreak of the highly contagious, yet preventable disease that’s spread across the state and much of the nation.

“It’s crazy. It’s scary,” said Colleen Metallo, one of those on line at the county Health Department headquarters in Somerville, the location of a ShopRite supermarket where a food handler was found to have the disease. “I just wanted to get my kids safe.”

Nurses at the Health Department office vaccinated 530 people Wednesday before they ran out of serum. Another 1,000 shots were made available Thursday, and eight nurses were on hand to administer them. The vaccine is being made available to anyone who ate deli food from the store or used the bathroom there between Oct. 13 and Oct. 30.

“We’re waiting to see how many people we get today,” said James Norgalis, deputy director of the Somerset County Department of Health. “The hope is that everyone who has a need for the vaccine will receive a shot.”

Somerville, Somerset’s county seat, is just the latest hot spot to emerge in an ongoing outbreak of hepatitis A in New Jersey, which has seen local outbreaks recently in Mendham and Paterson. Every county in the state is involved, with 541 cases reported since last December, with many hospitalizations and six deaths. The federal Centers for Disease Control says it’s part of a nationwide flare-up that’s logged more than 27,000 cases in 30 states — with 275 deaths — since 2016.

State: rate of increase slowing

State health officials said Thursday that the rate of increase in the number of cases has slowed in recent weeks, which they credited in part to the efforts of local health departments to educate and vaccinate residents. The numbers are still elevated over where they have been in the past, they said.

In healthy people, the disease often resolves itself, ranging from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to severe cases spanning several months. Some symptoms mimic the flu, like fever, vomiting and diarrhea, and others are more telltale of a liver disorder, like yellow eyes and skin. Although uncommon, deaths can occur, especially in older people or those with underlying health conditions.

Health officials say hepatitis A is usually spread by contact with food or water contaminated by infected feces, but transmission can also occur by contact with an infected person.

The vaccine, which offers protection for five years, can also help keep someone who’s been exposed to the disease from contracting it, so long as it is administered within two weeks of the contact.

The breadth of the outbreak has medical professionals worried.

“This is the most I’ve ever seen in my life, and I have not hospitalized so many patients in my lifetime,” said Dr. Nikolaos Pyrsopoulos, director of gastroenterology and hepatology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “I believe this is a real issue.”

Concern among local residents

Local officials, too, say the outbreak is distressing to residents.

“It’s just a very difficult situation, very stressful for people,” said Somerville Mayor Dennis Sullivan. “Because, hepatitis, you have a visceral reaction to it: Oh my God, it’s serious. And it is.”

Residents were indeed concerned.

“I think it’s really unfortunate this had to happen. It’s a health hazard for everybody,” said John Lerch of Bridgewater.

“I’m not sure — it was only a week ago — if I’m affected, but I’m not going to take the chance. I want to get the vaccine,” said Chris Wright of High Bridge.

For some, the concern was heightened.

“I was at the senior center in Bridgewater, and we had the Halloween party there and it was catered by the ShopRite,” said Rosetta Mogul of Bridgewater.

Caroline Flamos was among those waiting in line for a vaccination.

“I happen to be an immuno-compromised individual, so it’s not boding well for me,” said the Somerville resident.

“We’re taking the right precautions,” said Sarita Hill of Manville. “I think anyone who’s been to ShopRite, who knows someone from ShopRite and has been around them should come and get the shot.”

Cause of state outbreak unknown

New Jersey officials aren’t sure what initiated the state’s hepatitis A event, although they believe it began in Camden.

The disease is more prevalent among drug users, men who have sex with men, those recently incarcerated and the homeless, state officials say. Organizations that deal with those populations have refocused on hepatitis A, to test, vaccinate and reinforce hygiene.

“In a homeless shelter, people coming out of the bathroom, there’s five guys behind you. You’re trying to get out as quickly as possible,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, chair of the NJ Reentry Corporation. “Once the infection starts, it continues. It spreads unless we’re all very much aware of the fecal-to-oral transmission.”

The Somerville ShopRite claims no additional illnesses have been reported, the store has been sanitized and all possibly contaminated deli products have been dumped.

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