FILE - Hepatitis

There were more hepatitis A cases reported in Florida during the first seven months of 2019 than were reported in the last seven years combined, spurring state Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to declare the outbreak a public health emergency.

With 65 new cases reported in the last two weeks of July alone, the Florida Department of Health posted the number of hepatitis A case reported statewide in 2019 at 2,034 – a quadruple increase over the 548 cases reported all last year and nearly 10 times the 276 reported in all of 2017.

Rivkees said the public health emergency declaration will allow the state to spend more on testing for and treating hepatitis A, calling it a “proactive step to appropriately alert the public to this serious illness and prevent further spread.”

“We urge vaccination and stress the importance of washing your hands regularly,” Florida Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez said in a tweet accompanying the emergency declaration.

The virus appears to be spreading most rapidly in the Tampa Bay/Central Florida area with little statistical presence in South Florida.

Pasco and Pinellas counties reported the state’s highest numbers of confirmed cases of hepatitis A between Jan. 1 and July 27 – 358 and 328, respectively. Orange, Hillsborough and Volusia counties rounded out the top-five.

Hernando and Pasco joined Hernando County, also just north of Tampa Bay, to post the highest per capita rates of confirmed Hepatitis A cases in the state.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the state’s most populous and urban counties, had only 39 reported Hepatitis A cases combined thus far this year.

Hepatitis A is rapidly becoming a health issue across the country with as many as 22 municipalities and states declaring emergencies related to the virus thus far this years, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC).

On the same day Rivkees declared a public health emergency in Florida over spreading outbreaks of Hepatitis A, Philadelphia also declared an emergency for the same reason.

Earlier this week, according to the CDC, Mississippi officials announced a hepatitis outbreak in their state while Kentucky reported 4,793 cases since an outbreak there in 2017; Ohio reported 3,220 and West Virginia, 2,528, since 2018.

Hepatitis A, a virus that infects the liver, is spread through food, water and objects tainted by feces, or through close contact. Its flulike symptoms can last up to two months.

As recently as 2015, fewer than 1,400 cases of Hepatitis A were reported nationwide. But over the last three years, more than two dozen states have reported Hepatitis A outbreaks with more than 22,500 cases, including 221 deaths, reported by the CDC.

Dr. Eugene Schiff, director for liver diseases at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and former epidemic intelligence service officer for CDC, told The Associated Press that the disease is likely spreading across the nation among homeless and unvaccinated people.

He told the AP that intravenous drug users, men who have sex with men, and the homeless are at a higher risk for the illness.

“Homelessness is a big issue throughout the country and in Florida, and they are at higher risk to spread Hepatitis A around,” Dr. Schiff said. “It is more epidemic in the homeless community.”

As of January 2018, an estimated 31,030 people experience homelessness in Florida on any given day, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

But Schiff noted among people who are unvaccinated people, many choose to put themselves at risk of the virus for misplaced fears of the vaccination.

“This is entirely preventable. It is not that this is a virulent strain, there is just a larger risk if people haven’t been vaccinated,” he said.