Hepatitis A outbreak causes 16th death in county

SAN DIEGO — The death toll in an outbreak of hepatitis A in San Diego has reached 16, and 421 people have been sickened with the disease, the county Health and Human Services Agency reported Tuesday.

The figures are associated with an outbreak that began last November and has struck the homeless population and users of illicit drugs particularly hard.

Patients who contracted hepatitis A, which attacks the liver, in a manner unrelated to the outbreak aren’t included in the statistics.

The new numbers were released the same day the city of San Diego began a pilot program to keep 14 public restrooms in Balboa Park open 24 hours a day. Under direction from county health, the city on Monday began washing down streets and sidewalks in the East Village with a bleach formula.

Also, around 40 hand-washing stations were set up around the city — concentrated in areas where the homeless congregate — around the beginning of the Labor Day weekend.

On Wednesday, a proposal to declare an emergency in San Diego over the outbreak and a lack of shelter space is scheduled to go before the City Council’s Select Committee on Homelessness.

Councilman David Alvarez suggested the declaration nearly two weeks ago, calling for immediate action because of the fatalities. In response, the office of Mayor Kevin Faulconer said the declaration was unnecessary since the city was taking steps to combat the illness.

County officials, meanwhile, are continuing a program of vaccinations, which are considered to be the best way to prevent hepatitis A. The disease is spread by contact with microscopic amounts of infected feces and via sexual transmission.

More than 7,000 shots have been given to people considered to be at-risk of acquiring the disease, and over 19,000 shots given out in total, according to the HHSA.

In January’s annual tally of the area’s transient population, 5,619 homeless individuals were counted in the city of San Diego, a 10.3 percent increase from last year. Of those, 3,231 were living on the streets.