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Alexandria: Responding to Hepatitis Outbreak
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Alexandria: Responding to Hepatitis Outbreak

Exposures have ended, but symptoms may still manifest.

Anyone who dined at Tropical Smoothie Cafe around Aug. 9 may still be at risk for Hepatitis A. According to the Virginia Department of Health, a Hepatitis A outbreak has been traced to imported strawberries served at Tropical Smoothie Cafe. As of Sept. 2, there have been 37 cases in Northern Virginia, but experts say that number could still rise.

According to Julie Painter, professor of global and community health at George Mason University’s College of Health and Human Services, symptoms of Hepatitis A could take up to six weeks to appear. Painter says Tropical Smoothie Cafe customers infected with Hepatitis may not have experienced any of the symptoms yet. Painter said those who have been exposed to Hepatitis A need to be treated with a vaccine or immune globulin before symptoms manifest.

State officials say exposure to the strawberries has ended, but the threat lingers.

“We believe exposures have stopped, but people should still watch their health.”

— Diane Woolard, Virginia Department of Health

“We believe exposures have stopped, but people should still watch their health,” said Diane Woolard with the Virginia Department of Health. “Anyone who suspects they might have Hepatitis A: Don’t work as a food handler.”

“The disease is always out there on some level,” said Woolard. “The disease is spread through fecal/oral transmission. If someone is sick, it comes out in their stool. That can spread if someone doesn’t wash their hands properly.”

According to Woolard, an outbreak of this scale is uncommon.

“Something must have happened on a large scale,” Woolard said.

Woolard said people exposed to Hepatitis A may experience no symptoms at all, but others may have a fever, become tired, vomit or not want to eat. These are common disease symptoms, but what Woolard says sets Hepatitis apart from other diseases is the yellowing of the skin or eyes, and the discoloration of urine or stools. According to Woolard, this means the liver has experienced damage.

There are three Tropical Smoothie Cafes in Alexandria, but sources of the hepatitis outbreak in the northern Virginia region were not identified by individual franchise locations. Mike Rotondo, CEO of Tropical Smoothie Cafe, said in a public statement that the strawberries were immediately removed from all cafes as soon as the source was found and new strawberries were sourced to each of the cafes.

“‘Eat Better, Feel Better’ is not just a marketing slogan, it’s a promise and it’s something I believe in very dearly,” said Rotondo. “Recently, some strawberries may have made their way into our supply chain that could challenge that concept. I sincerely apologize for any issues that this may have caused for any of our customers ... We take this issue very seriously. Your health and your safety is our top priority.”

Still, some say rebuilding trust in the brand at a local level could take time.

“For businesses trying to recover from a crisis like this, being transparent and communicating clearly about the steps they intend to take to fix the problem and being sincere about wanting to make things right are crucial to rebuilding trust in their customers,” said Matthew Shaner, professor of marketing at Mason’s School of Business. “Managers should also understand that rebuilding trust takes time. A crisis might fall out of the news cycle in a few days, but winning back customers is a long-term commitment.”