Hundreds show up for free hepatitis shots Eldersburg Wendy's customers fear food was contaminated

September 25, 1998|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Hundreds of people who feared they were exposed to hepatitis A at a Wendy's restaurant in Eldersburg lined up for shots at an impromptu clinic at Springfield Hospital Center yesterday.

By evening, a long line of cars snaked along the main road on the sprawling hospital campus in Sykesville, where the Carroll County Health Department was offering free injections of immune globulin. The antibody, if given within two weeks of exposure, helps prevent the dangerous, communicable virus that attacks the liver.

Soccer teams joined groups of co-workers, regular customers and mothers with toddlers, all of whom thought they had eaten at the fast-food restaurant at Carrolltown Center between Sept. 8 and 12. County health officials announced Tuesday that a Wendy's employee, who was fired Sept. 11 for poor work habits, had tested positive for hepatitis A and was contagious at the time of her employment.

"I am paranoid about the idea of a virus, and I can't stand needles," said Charles Hammock, 20, an Eldersburg resident who had eaten at Wendy's three times this month. "I just won't watch them shoot me."

The clinic opened at 2 p.m. and averaged about 200 people an hour. The Carroll County Health Department purchased $46,000 worth of the antibody, enough to inoculate 3,000 people, and had additional shipments on standby.

"This is public health at its purest," said Larry L. Leitch, county health officer.

Anyone who had eaten uncooked foods handled by the former employee was at risk and eligible for the shot.

"One time when it was good not to eat greens," said Tim Richard, a frequent Wendy's customer who usually avoids salads but showed up yesterday for a shot.

Since he hadn't eaten fresh vegetables, health officials told Richard, a Winfield resident, he could leave without a shot. Others chose caution.

"I can't eat or sleep from worrying," said Vaughn Starke, an employee of Dal-Tile in Eldersburg, who saw a notice about the clinic above the time clock at work. The nurses put his mind at ease, he said.

Judy Rienke buys Wendy's hamburgers for all the riders at her Eldersburg stable every Saturday. She showed up with several of her patrons.

"They are really thanking me for this lunch," she said.

Lines formed along the sidewalks to the Medical-Surgical Building. Inside, the lines doubled and tripled, filling the corridors. Strangers chatted amiably, discussing what they had eaten at Wendy's and when.

The crowd included teachers, police officers, mechanics and postal employees. Some feared their employers would penalize them if exposure to a contagious disease became known. Many expressed anger with the careless employee, who health officials said had not worn plastic gloves when handling food.

"I use gloves and wash my hands about 15 times every shift," said Dawn Kennick, who works at another fast-food restaurant in Eldersburg. "I am really mad at that employee."

"None of us are here for business or pleasure," said a police officer who had a Wendy's meal while on break from a course at the state's new Driver Training Facility two weeks ago.

The frequently advertised vegetable pita seemed among the most popular items for many in line for shots.

"You try to keep your kids healthy and get them to eat vegetables," said Ruth Sliviak, who came to the clinic with her 9-year-old twin daughters.

"We have to get shots so we don't get sick and make other people sick," said daughter Sarah Sliviak.

Sheryl Dulski, a nurse at Carroll County General Hospital, said she felt an obligation to get the shot, which she called "a good preventive measure."

When they considered contracting the disease, most said they didn't mind the injection, a thin needle in the hip.

"I read the symptoms," said Laura Gillen, who came to the clinic with her 6-year-old son. "You don't want to get this."

Hepatitis A is carried in human feces and often is a food-borne disease associated with poor hygiene. Symptoms include diarrhea, nausea, cramping and jaundice, a yellowing of the eyes and skin.

Although Jamie Green, 17, who works part time at the Carrolltown mall, had peeled the "wilted, brown" lettuce off her sandwich, she also opted for the shot. Her rationale was "better safe than sorry."

Debbie Tegeler and her 2-year-old daughter Rebecca had shared a taco salad at Wendy's.

"A taco salad, of all things," said Debbie Tegeler. "I guess I just picked the wrong week to have it. This will teach me to stay home and eat."

Ashley Constantine, 2, clung fiercely to her mother when she was injected. The promise of M & M's staved off tears, said her mother, Karen Cornacchia.

So far, no other Wendy's employee or customer has fallen ill. Many waiting in line said they had imagined a symptom or two.

"I felt sick to my stomach when I heard the news," said Jennifer O'Brien, 17.

Theresa Lennon said her physician had recommended shots for her and her two children.

"I have to get a shot because I ate nuggets," said her son, 9-year-old Dustin.

But the day was not without humor.

Eric Cohen of Randallstown drew a few laughs when he said, "This is just like a Wendy's line. I'll take a quarter pounder with cheese, but no lettuce."

Cohen planned to return to the clinic today with his four children, who also had eaten at Wendy's recently.

Shots are being offered from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. today at the Medical-Surgical Building at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.

Information: 410-876-4900.

Pub Date: 9/25/98

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