Hepatits A outbreak ravages San Diego homeless population

County declares local health emergency
Posted at 6:13 AM, Sep 06, 2017
and last updated 2017-09-06 14:17:42-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Homeless outreach groups are calling for more permanent solutions as a Hepatitis A outbreak spreads through San Diego's homeless population.

This disease attacks the liver and is spread through contact with contaminated food or fecal matter.

Since November 2016, 15 people have died and almost 400 cases have been reported to the county.

But Amy Gonyeau, the COO of the Alpha Project, thinks that number could be much higher.

"Homeless people living on the streets feel bad like this every day," she said. "They have the symptoms, fatigue, fever and things like that. It's tough for them to know what's Hep-A and what's just feeling bad."

The County Department of Health and Human Services issued a "Local Health Emergency" on September 1, saying that the disease continues to spread despite "aggressive efforts" to stop it.

The agency says 19,000 people have been vaccinated in response to the outbreak, including 7,100 people considered "at-risk."

They also called for any food service workers to get the vaccine to help avoid contamination.

More vaccinations are planned for the homeless population, or anyone else who wants one. You can find a schedule here.

Meanwhile, the county and City of San Diego have set up 40 hand washing stations, primarily in ares with large homeless populations.

But Gonyeau worries about the "hidden homeless" -- people who live in canyons or away from the East Village.

"We were shocked and surprised when our volunteer team came back and said half the people they talked to didn't know about the outbreak," she said.

The Alpha Project has already proposed a new shelter to help with the problem. They're calling for one at the City Maintenance Yard, a 6 acre lot located near 20th Street and B.

"It would be a place where everybody goes," Gonyeau said. "We can start the process and get you out of your situation and into a solution."

"It would have showers, restrooms and cleaning stations to avoid this and prevent it," she added.

Gonyeau said private donors have already pledged enough money to get it started. Now she's waiting on the city and county to act.

The emergency declaration, she said, is a good start.

"It means people are starting to pay more attention," Gonyeau said.

In the meantime, volunteers from the Alpha Project have been going out every day and taking hygiene kits to the homeless. They're also giving out information about the disease and how to avoid getting it.

"I think there's a lot of fear," Gonyeau said of the homeless people living in San Diego. "They're scared (of Hep-A), and rightfully so."

The county declaration calls for sanitizing areas where homeless people live to remove contaminants. That could start as soon as next week.