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Updated February 5
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Joseph’s Market in Waterville works to make improvements after hepatitis A scare

The Waterville market has been working with state officials to make improvements to the store since a food service worker with hepatitis A virus infection prepared food there while infectious.

WATERVILLE — The manager of Joseph’s Market on Front Street said he has been working to comply with the state’s request to make improvements to the store and how it operates after a worker with hepatitis A virus infection prepared food while infectious between Dec. 27 and Jan. 9.

Danny McKinnis, who has been the market’s butcher for 18 years, said the store has installed two new hand-washing sinks, including an extra one in the meat room, and another in the basement, where a bathroom has been expanded to make room for the sink. Previously, the bathroom was large enough only for a toilet.

Other improvements have been made regarding how surfaces, equipment and the bathroom are cleaned and sanitized, according to an inspection report issued by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry’s Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations, which licenses retail food establishments.

The Morning Sentinel requested the report under Maine’s Freedom of Information Act and received it Tuesday.

McKinnis said he has complied with all of the state’s requests to make changes to the market. The only thing he still must do is attend a food safe class.

“Everything is done,” McKinnis said Tuesday. “They (state officials) were actually here today to check if the sinks were in. It’s a big expense, too, but it’s done.”

He said the market has seen a drop in business since the state announced Jan. 24 a food service worker had been diagnosed with hepatitis A. The next day, about six customers came to the store when, on average, he sees 70 or 75, he said.

“It hasn’t picked up much,” he said. “It’s a slow time of the year anyway. Saturday picked up a little bit. People say, ‘We’re here to support you,’ so that was nice. Otherwise, it’s not good.”

Making matters worse, McKinnis said, when he started to go down to the basement Saturday morning to check on the plumbers installing the sink, he fell down the stairs and broke his right arm. He is scheduled for surgery Monday, he said.

Prior to the state’s announcement, McKinnis had been working to buy the market from co-owner Ireen Huda of Saco, but he said that plan has been put on hold because of recent events.

“I’m actually going to put the brakes on that — just watch and see what happens,” McKinnis said. “The way business is right now, it’d be terrible to buy it.”

Store customers have called asking to return meat, although it has not been determined any meat was contaminated because of the worker with hepatitis A, according to McKinnis.

“People don’t understand,” he said. “They’re scared.”

Joseph’s Market on Front Street. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

The Maine Center for Disease Control and state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry issued a news release Jan. 24 notifying customers who bought food during the two-week period — from Dec. 27 through Jan. 9 — that store patrons might be at risk for hepatitis A infection.

The release said people who bought deli items, ready-to-eat food or meat between those dates should watch for symptoms and contact a health care provider to be tested if they show any signs of infection.

Deli and ready-to-eat food bought within the two-week period should be discarded and meat purchased during that time should be discarded or cooked thoroughly, according to state officials.

“People who consumed deli items, ready-to-eat food or meat during the period have up to 14 days after eating them to receive hepatitis A immune globulin (IG) or the vaccine,” the news release reads. “They should contact their medical providers to discuss options.

“Individuals with compromised immune systems or children under 1 year old who ate deli items, ready-to-eat food, or meat from Joseph’s Market during this time could gain added protection by receiving the hepatitis A IG, upon consultation with their health care providers.”

Hepatitis A is a vaccine-preventable, contagious liver disease caused by the hepatitis A virus. Symptoms can range from mild illness to a severe illness that requires hospitalization, and the illness can last several months, according to state health officials.

Most adults with hepatitis A have a sudden onset of symptoms, such as tiredness, low appetite, stomach pain, nausea, dark urine and jaundice, or yellowing of the skin and eyes.

Most children younger than 6 do not have symptoms or have an unrecognized infection, according to the state’s news release.

 

CONTINURED MONITORING

Contacted by telephone Monday for an update on the Joseph’s Market situation, Robert Long, communications director for the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, emailed a statement from CDC to the Morning Sentinel.

“The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention continues to monitor the situation,” the email reads. “No additional cases of hepatitis A linked to the original diagnosis have been reported as of February 3, 2020.”

Long did not respond to an email Monday and a voice message Tuesday asking if CDC officials could say it is now safe to buy food from the market.

Asked that same question Jan. 24, Long said: “I can’t say that with 100% certainty. If people take the precautions we spell out in the release, that’s the best advice we can give them to protect themselves.”

McKinnis said the infected food service worker at the market apparently contracted hepatitis A from her spouse. McKinnis said Jan. 24 the worker brought a note into work from the hospital saying she was cleared to return to work, with no restrictions.

McKinnis said Tuesday the worker was back at work this week, although she did not work at the store last week.

McKinnis said Jan. 24, and reiterated again Tuesday that “it wasn’t anything that we did in the store to make this happen. It came from the outside in.”

Celeste Poulin, director of the Division of Quality Assurance and Regulations in the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said Monday the department licenses people who sell retail food. It also licenses food trucks and restaurants.

The situation that occurred at Joseph’s Market is not common, according to Poulin.

“It’s the first time I’ve been involved in something like this, in one of our licensed facilities,” she said. “I’m aware of something in Caribou last summer that was licensed by a health inspection program at the DHHS (state Department of Health and Human Services).”

She said the Waterville situation is “one of those deals where we’ve tried to work with CDC to do what we can to protect the public health.”

“Hepatitus is very unfortunate, but it also can be very contagious,” she said. “We’ve been working with them to develop a plan of correction and identify anything that looked like it might have some room for improvement. They’ve been cooperative.”

Asked if she can say it is safe for people to buy food from Joseph’s Market, Poulin said she could not. That, she said, would be a question better answered by someone from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a doctor or other health care professional.

“I could not tell you that something is absolutely safe without knowing how all the timing and exposure stuff works,” Poulin said.

Asked Tuesday if he thought it was safe for people to buy food at the market now, McKinnis said, “I, myself, would say absolutely.”

McKinnis said he thinks when people learned of the worker with hepatitis A, they thought the meat at the market was contaminated, which he said was not the case.

“The meat wasn’t contaminated — there was the potential for it,” he said. “As far as I’ve heard, nobody got sick from meat they’d eaten.”

McKinnis said he hopes that with time, more customers will return to the market.

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