An inmate worker at the Men’s Central Jail tested positive for hepatitis A, prompting Los Angeles County health officials to warn those inside the facility last month that they might have been exposed to the highly contagious virus.
Although prison officials said Friday there were no other suspected cases, it is unclear how many people may have been exposed during the virus incubation period from May 13 to Sunday.
Although the time coincides with a large group visit that included a federal judge, U.S. Justice Department officials and lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union, sheriff’s department officials said they don’t believe visitors had been exposed.
“They did not visit the affected housing area or eat any food,” Deputy Sheriff Sergio Aloma said.
The housing area involved, Aloma said, was a 3600 module dorm that houses 16 to 20 detained workers known as trusties. Trustees generally have more freedom of movement than other incarcerated people and visit many places across facilities as part of their job.
Sometimes they participate in the preparation and distribution of meals to the prison population. Authorities are still trying to determine if the detained worker handled food during this time and in which parts of the prison he worked or visited.
“We are also investigating other residential areas where he may have been housed during his stay,” Aloma added.
In the meantime, the county is offering hepatitis A vaccines to anyone in the Men’s Central Jail who may have been exposed, as well as anyone who was incarcerated there during the two-week incubation window. That time frame, officials said, was based on when the man reported his symptoms on Sunday.
Afterwards, Aloma said, he was transferred to Los Angeles General Medical Center “and was later found to have hepatitis A.”
Friday evening, the man was still hospitalized. It is not known if he was infected before being imprisoned or if he contracted the virus behind bars.
The confirmed case of hepatitis A came as no surprise to Melissa Camacho, a senior attorney with the ACLU of Southern California who participated in last month’s tour.
“It’s overcrowded and people are close by,” she said.
Those concerns — along with poor mental health care issues, inmate abuse and appalling living conditions — have played into a trio of longstanding lawsuits against the county alleging inmates are treated so badly that they rape the Constitution.
Among the group that toured the prisons in May was U.S. District Judge Dean D. Pregerson, who is hearing all three cases – one of which is heading for a contempt hearing later this month.
“It’s unfortunate that the DOJ, the ACLU, the county attorney and Judge Pregerson were potentially exposed,” Camacho added, “but it’s much worse for the people who had to live and work there for the entire exhibition period.
Hepatitis A is highly contagious and people can spread it before they feel sick, according to a statement from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health. The virus causes a short-term liver infection and is found in the stool and blood of infected people. It is usually transmitted by eating contaminated food or by close contact with an infectious person.
Symptoms may include fever, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, dark urine or jaundice.
Anyone who was incarcerated at the Central Men’s Jail during the exposure period and later develops symptoms of hepatitis A should seek medical attention, officials said. There is no specific antiviral therapy for the infection, so officials said vaccinations are the best preventative measure.
For those who may have been exposed, free vaccines will be available starting Saturday at Obregon Park and Ted Watkins Memorial Park from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Vaccines will also be available at the Market Street Center in Santa Clarita, but only Thursday, Friday and Saturday from noon to 7 p.m., as that site is no longer available after June 11.