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Springfield, Mo. (The News-Leader) -- As many as 5,000 people might have been exposed to hepatitis A virus in May at a Red Robin restaurant in Springfield, county health officials announced Wednesday.

Those officials have set up immunization clinics for people who were at the restaurant from May 8 to May 16. The disease spread by a virus affecting the liver has been tied to a worker from the restaurant at 3720 S. Glenstone Ave.

Kevin Gipson, director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, said the county worked with the state and federal governments to get the vaccine shipped to Springfield.

Kendra Findley, the administrator of community health and epidemiology, said the county received a report about the illness on Tuesday morning.

A statement from the restaurant says the eatery is now safe and that the problem was self-reported to health officials. Health officials agreed the restaurant is now safe.

Cyndi Steutzman and Janet Harbison were visiting Springfield on Wednesday from Schell City and stopped by Red Robin to grab food for a friend. Though the health threat has passed, Harbison said there should have been a sign in the restaurant or workers should have told her about the issue.

Steutzman had previous concern about a similar threat when her daughter was potentially exposed and had to get a vaccination after an outbreak stemming from a local fast food restaurant. Steutzman said, "It just scared me to death."

Ame Glasgow of Brookline said she and her husband and their two children ate at Red Robin on May 8. Glasgow said one of their children was previously immunized, and she was waiting to hear from her doctor's office about the other. Glasgow said she and her husband will probably attend one of the immunization clinics that the county has set up.

"It's pretty upsetting to think that there weren't enough safety precautions taken," she said.

A news conference was called at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at the county Public Safety Center to alert the community to what officials called "a recent public health threat."

There will be free immunization clinics today and Friday at Remington's, 1655 W. Republic Road. If someone affected doesn't get a vaccine within 14 days of hepatitis A exposure, it does no good, officials say.

A Mercy clinic, the Smith Glynn Callaway Clinic at 3231 S. National Ave., will have hepatitis A vaccine during the holiday weekend. Hepatitis A is a liver disease that results from infection with the virus. It can range in severity from a mild illness lasting a few weeks to a severe illness lasting several months, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The health department has set up a hotline for people to call if they have questions. It is at 417-829-6200. The hotline will be staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter — even in microscopic amounts — from contact with objects, food or drinks contaminated by the feces or stool of an infected person, according to the CDC.

A statement was sent to the News-Leader on behalf of Red Robin in Springfield. It said Red Robin was informed Monday that a worker had contracted hepatitis A "and we immediately contacted the Springfield-Greene County Health Department." The worker has not been in the restaurant since May 16, the statement says, and "will not return to work until ... granted medical clearance."

"The welfare of our guests and team members is Red Robin's top priority. It is company policy that team members who are ill, or showing signs of illness, should call out sick and not report for work," the company said.

"Upon being informed of the incident, the Springfield Red Robin took all safety measures to ensure the well-being of our guests and team members including arranging the inoculation of all Springfield team members with the immune globulin prophylaxis shot," the statement continued.

The last Springfield-Greene County health inspection at Red Robin, conducted on Jan. 14, found three critical violations that were corrected at the time of inspection and two noncritical violations. None are related to the current health risk.

There's a déjà vu element to this health concern.

In 1997, hundreds of people in Springfield sought vaccinations against hepatitis A after eating at a restaurant where a server later diagnosed with the illness had been on duty. Health officials said then that 3,500 people had possibly been exposed to the disease.

The Springfield Red Robin threat follows a report earlier this month that a Red Robin employee in Pennsylvania had been diagnosed with hepatitis A.

The Morning Call newspaper in Allentown, Pa., reported that the state department of health was investigating the situation.

The paper's story noted that the health department did not think there was a threat to the public.

According to the CDC, the number of hepatitis A cases in the U.S. has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s due to the introduction of a hepatitis A vaccine.

Contributing to this story were News-Leader reporters Sony Hocklander, Jonathan Shorman, Stephen Herzog and Christine Temple.

HOTLINE

The health department has set up a hotline from people to call if they have questions. It is at 417-829-6200.

It will be staffed from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday and 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday.

VACCINATION CLINICS

Where: Remington's, 1655 W. Republic Road

When: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday and 7 a.m. to noon Friday

Mercy will also offer vaccinations at the Smith Glynn Callaway Clinic at 3231 S. National Ave. on from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday through Monday.

WHAT IS HEPATITIS A?

Hepatitis A is usually spread when a person ingests fecal matter — even in microscopic amounts — from contact with objects, food, or drinks contaminated by the feces or stool of an infected person, according to the CDC.

Hepatitis A does not always produce symptoms, and adults are more likely to have symptoms than children.

If you do have symptoms, they could include: fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, joint pain or jaundice. Symptoms typically occur two to six weeks after exposure, according to the CDC.

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