OAKLAND, Calif. (Brooks Jarosz, KTVU) - A Hepatitis A outbreak is sweeping through homeless populations in two California cities and now there’s worry the Bay Area could be next.
Local 1021, representing Oakland’s city workers, sent a letter Friday to Mayor Libby Schaaf, claiming the city was unprepared for a looming public health crisis.
Dirty piles of trash and waste can cause Hepatitis A to spread and workers are fearful they lack security, proper safety equipment, and a plan to deal with the dangers.
“Once you start going through the rubble, things are going to pop up,” city safety supervisor Brian Clay said. “You’re going to see needles, you’re going to see human waste, you’re going to see possibly dead animals. You’re going to see all of it.”
KTVU FOX 2 went along with city crews as they worked to clean up several homeless camps and illegal dumping sites in West Oakland.
“Every day you take a chance at getting stuck by needles, you’re dealing with human waste,” city worker Roosevelt Brown said. “It’s stressful.”
It is those unsanitary conditions that has been the cause of the viral hepatitis outbreak among homeless in San Diego, which started in November 2016. Since then, nearly 400 cases have been documented and 15 deaths. Of that, 65 percent were homeless.
In April, a Hepatitis A outbreak happened in Santa Cruz where 89 percent of the 63 cases were contracted by the homeless population.
“It’s almost like a ticking time bomb that’s waiting to happen,” Dr. Runhjun Misra said. “At some point there’s going to be a disease outbreak.”
Dr. Misra has been pushing for prevention and suggests homeless in the Bay Area need to be vaccinated now. Additionally, she has been calling for better accessibility to clean water, soap, and bathrooms.
Medical information explains there’s a 15 to 50 day incubation period before most who contract the disease even see symptoms. The symptoms many times include nausea, vomiting, itching and a yellowing of the skin.
“We’re always worried as doctors,” Misra said. “It’s bound to happen in any area where you have people without the basic needs that everyone needs to maintain cleanliness.”
Alameda County Public Health Department said Oakland has seen one dozen cases of Hepatitis A this year, however, none are among the homeless population.
The city has put portable toilets and sanitation stations at some encampments, but the ones visited by KTVU were not maintained.
“They’re ridiculous, they’re filthy. They stay filthy,” one homeless woman said. “I’m not sure what else I can do besides washing my hands.”
Union workers told the mayor the plan to address homelessness has failed. Clean up crews often visit the same sites several times a month. They criticize the city’s lack of security and resources to deal with a potential health crisis.
“People shouldn’t be living like this,” Clay said. “We should have better conditions for our people.”
The mayor’s office referred KTVU to the Alameda Public Health Department regarding the letter sent from the union to Mayor Schaaf.
If you have been vaccinated for Hepatitis A, then you are not at risk. The State of California’s Department of Public Health has been telling hospitals to stock more vaccines and prepare to treat the homeless and give them the vaccine, when possible.