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Hepatitis A in server at Casa-di-Pizza stirs alert

A confirmed case of hepatitis A was reported in a food server at Casa-di-Pizza, 477 Elmwood Ave., and customers who dined at the Buffalo restaurant from March 1 to March 19 may be at risk, Erie County health officials said Sunday. Takeout and bar customers are not affected, they said.

Dr. Gale R. Burstein, county health commissioner, said that between 1,500 and 2,000 people may be at risk but emphasized that the risk of transmission is very low. Anyone who has had a vaccination for hepatitis A or has previously been infected is not at risk, she said.

“The risk of transmission is very low, but it is not zero,” Burstein said. “It’s very rare for someone in the United States to contract hepatitis A from a food handler. Typically we don’t see many or even any infections, but we want to offer Erie County residents an opportunity to be fully protected from hepatitis A if they have been exposed.”

To avoid an outbreak, the county Department of Health will offer a precautionary vaccine to those who may have been exposed between March 9 and 19. The vaccine will be offered during a clinic from noon to 8 p.m. Monday and from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday in the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, 153 Franklin St.

Customers who ate at the restaurant between March 1 and March 8 should watch for symptoms, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said, although they are not eligible for the vaccine because it is effective only within two weeks of exposure.

Burstein said, “There’s nothing we can do for people who may have been infected in that (March 1 to March 8) time period, and we want them to educate themselves about the signs and symptoms and if they do develop any of them they should be evaluated by their primary care physician or at an urgent care center.”

To expedite the process, any resident who feels he or she may have been exposed between March 9 and 19 may preregister for an appointment at Walk-ins are also welcome.

Burstein said the unidentified woman worked in the dining room and banquet room as a server and food handler who made salads. This person did not have any contact with takeout foods.

She said the restaurant found out Friday that the person was infected and immediately sent county health inspectors to the restaurant.

“Casa-di-Pizza has been very cooperative working with us. We ensured that all food that may have been contaminated was disposed of and any violations we noticed were corrected on site or are in the process of being corrected,” Burstein said. “We do know this food server and others at Casa-di-Pizza are very vigilant about hand-washing practices, so that will probably help minimize the transmission of hepatitis A.”

Restaurant manager Jeffrey J. Jacobbi said Sunday, “We follow the strictest policies set by Erie County. They did come in and check us and they gave us a very clean bill of health.”

“They really didn’t find anything,” he said. “It was really kind of a pat on our backs. We were really kind of proud of that.”

During Casa-di-Pizza’s most recent routine inspection, on Sept. 12, officials found one “critical” violation and five “noncritical” violations, according to Food Facility Inspection reports on the county Health Department website.

The department defines “critical” as a violation that “could directly contribute to or imminently cause illness or injury.” Inspectors found that pizza in a display case in a side dining room was kept at 120 degrees when it should have been kept at 140 degrees or higher, according to the report. The violation was corrected during the inspection. No violations were found during a follow-up inspection Sept. 26.

Burstein said that as part of the normal monitoring of restaurants, the server had gone to a doctor and was found to have symptoms. It was determined that this was the only employee infected, she said.

Laboratories automatically forward any positive tests for hepatitis A to the state Department of Health, Burstein said.

Burstein said that the investigation is continuing.

She said symptoms of hepatitis A do not typically appear until a person has had the virus for a few weeks. “The incubation period is about a month, but it can range from two weeks to two months,” Burstein said.

“Usually younger children, under the age of 6, don’t develop any symptoms,” she said, adding that the vaccine is approved only for persons over 12 months old, but most infants have been vaccinated.

Burstein said hepatitis A is not very common in the United States, because of immunizations, and it is more commonly contracted when people travel outside the country when on vacation.

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