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Kentucky Lawmakers Urge Investigation into Deadly Hepatitis A Outbreak

— March 4, 2019

The deadly outbreak has affected thousands and shows no signs of slowing down.

Kentucky lawmakers are criticizing the state’s sluggish response to a hepatitis A outbreak that’s continuing to affect residents across the region.

So far, writes the Courier-Journal, more than 4,100 people have come down sick. Of the thousands affected, 43 have died.

State Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Louisville Democrat, said he intends to file a resolution “to direct the Cabinet for Health and Family Services to examine why we have had such a poor response to the hepatitis A outbreak and offer recommendations to make it better.”

According to the Courier-Journal’s own reporting, McGarvey’s call to action comes after the paper did a piece on hepatitis run amok. Beginning in Eastern Kentucky last spring, the contagion has spread among drug users and the homeless. And the state health department has struggled to find and treat those most vulnerable.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services’ website states that the first cases were identified as early as November 2017.

“Several cases have been infected with HAV strains genetically linked to outbreaks in California, Utah and Michigan,” the KCHFS website says, adding that “a contaminated food source has not been identified and transmission is believed to be occurring through person-to-person contact.”

“Similar to hepatitis A outbreaks in other states, the primary risk factors remain illicit drug use and homelessness.”

However, the outbreak isn’t constrained by class: one in five infected aren’t in either group. And hepatitis is beginning to spread, seeping from Kentucky and into neighboring Appalachia.

“Need to move faster,” Dr. Robert Brawley wrote in an April 2018 email, urging the state to bolster its offense. “The virus is moving faster than we [and local health departments] are […] immunizing persons at risk.”

Syringes prepped for use; image by Nathan Forget, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, no changes.
Syringes prepped for use; image by Nathan Forget, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0, no changes.

Brawley, claims the Courier-Journal, initially requested at least $10 million. That figure, he said, should include $6 million for vaccines and another $4 million for temporary health workers to help administer them. He also petitioned officials to declare a public health emergency to obtain federal funds.

But the Courier-Journal says that Brawley’s efforts fell on deaf ears. Brawley’s supervisor, acting public health Commissioner Dr. Jeffrey Howard, chose instead to push for a $3 million state response.

And Howard didn’t receive even that. Ultimately, Kentucky paid out a total of $2.2 million, scarcely any of which went to hiring additional staff or immunizing vulnerable residents.

The federal government, notes the paper, has more than $220 million reserved for local health departments in dire need.

Consequently, the state’s hepatitis outbreak has transformed into the nation’s largest and deadliest.

“Obviously, this is too serious to get wrong,” Sen. McGarvey told the Courier-Journal. Other Democrats have agreed, signaling a need for accountability.

“Someone dropped the ball,” Democratic state Rep. Angie Hatton said. “As a representative of people in Kentucky, it strikes me that it’s very difficult to place a dollar value on human lives.

“They need to ramp up efforts on hepatitis A,” she said. “Hopefully it’s not too little, too late.”


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