HR emailed our department to say that someone has Hepatitis A

A reader writes:

Our Human Resources department just sent out a bizarre email saying that someone in my department has a Hepatitis A infection, that the risk of contracting it is low, and that they’re forwarding information about Hepatitis A so that we can make our own decisions about any actions we might want to take to monitor our own health.

I was formerly in health care and was vaccinated against Hep A & B a few years ago, but even with the protection from the vaccines, now I’m really nervous about potluck foods (I’m pretty sure that nobody in our department is doing each other or sharing needles, so contaminated food is probably the biggest concern for transmission right now).

I don’t want to get all Howard Hughes about germs, and I realize that we are all grown-ups, but I have noticed while I’m in the bathroom that some people don’t wash their hands at all or they just rinse quickly and then leave. It seems passive-aggressive to put up a note. I also don’t want to know who’s got it, or make them feel singled out by admonishing people to wash their hands with soap.

This whole situation makes me really uncomfortable. How do you think the HR department handled this? Is this standard? I understand that they are trying to do damage control, and I guess theoretically they haven’t disclosed the person’s identity, but it just seems weird to tell our entire department that we’ve got a Typhoid Mary in our midst.

I assume they alerted people because they felt like it was the responsible thing to do, and their approach of “here’s some information, and you can decide whether you want to do anything differently in regard to your own health” is pretty reasonable.

After all, you’re now reconsidering whether you want to eat potluck foods at work. If that’s a concern for you, it’s good that you’re fully informed and can make that decision for yourself. Wouldn’t you be pretty pissed if you weren’t informed, ate a bunch of potluck foods, contracted Hepatitis A, and then found out that your employer had known it could be a (even small) risk and hadn’t bothered to say anything?

So I think they handled this pretty reasonably.

But no, I don’t think you should be putting putting up signs in the bathroom. Assume that some portion of your coworkers don’t wash their hands (since that’s true of a not-insignificant portion of the general population) and take your own precautions accordingly — Hep A or no Hep A.

{ 203 comments… read them below }

  1. Cheeky*

    If you’ve been vaccinated for Hep A, your risk is essentially 0. Stop stressing. It’s something HR was fair to warn about, but hysteria over it is unnecessary.

    1. OP-hepa*

      OP here. Vaccination doesn’t have a 100% protection rate. Regardless of vaccination status, I wouldn’t want to eat contaminated food. I had never really thought about foodborne illness until receiving the email.

      1. Jaime*

        Right, and not to pile on the fear, but years after being vaccinated, your antibody count can fall, meaning that a booster may be necessary. (Ex. I just found out my Hep B antibodies are low, so at my next doctor’s appointment we’ll discuss whether a booster is a good choice.)

        1. fposte*

          And that’s why even those of us who were vaccinated for smallpox are probably doomed if the smallpox apocalypse happens.

  2. Lily in NYC*

    Oh god, I am having flashbacks to the time a coworker came down with meningitis (the really bad type). We found him lying on the floor of his cube looking dead. It was terrifying. Poor guy lost his eye but he was lucky to live. We all had to take cipro. Anyway, I’m not sure what more your workplace could have done. OP, what do you think they should have done differently?

    Alison, if you are reading this, how come there’s no “reply” button under certain comments? There’s a bunch in the “a few minutes late to work” discussion.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I see them under both comments here. Would you try clearing your cache, and then if it’s still happening, sending me a screenshot of what you’re seeing (with info on what browser/device you’re using)?

    2. OP-hepa*

      I talked to HR and they felt the risk of foodborne illness was very, very low. I thought it was bizarre for them to tell us if they didn’t think there was any appreciable risk.

      As I mentioned in another post, it was only after talking to a friend in HR that I learned that the health department has mandatory reporting for certain types of illnesses such as Hepatitis A, and that’s probably why we were informed, although our HR department did not tell me that.

      1. Elizabeth the Ginger*

        One reason to report this kind of thing even if there is a small chance of transmission: there might be employees who are immunocompromised (and haven’t told management) who might take different steps than a person with a healthy immune system.

        1. Kyrielle*

          Or employees with additional concerns – pregnant, small infants, etc. – or someone at home who’s immunocompromised – for whatever reason, employees who may worry more. (Or who haven’t been immunized and might want to fix that, or….)

      2. SnowWhite*

        I’m sorry if I sound mean here, but HR is not the hand-holding department. They gave you the information it is up to you how you handle it.

        Regarding your concerns about hygiene – either say it directly or mention to your Office Manager. They can then use their discretion on actions moving forward.

        You were informed because the health department has a mandatory reporting policy for illnesses such as Hep A. mainly for high risk employees such as pregnant women.

        If you feel that you need to take certain steps for your individual concerns – do it, but it is not HR’s responsibility.

        As far as HR’s involvement – they informed you of the situation and kept the confidentiality of the poor employee with this illness. They should list this as a win.

        And may I suggest that you do not refer to the situation/unknown employee as ‘Thyroid Mary’ in the office.

      3. Melly*

        If you are in the US, your company should have been advised by the local health department on risk and how to communicate. If the risk is actually low (like no known food prep or sharing), this is appropriate. This is the role of the health department and should be how the company learned of the Hep A anyway.

  3. illini02*

    How exactly would you have preferred HR handled this? I’m not trying to sound mean, but it seems that they spread information that most people would want to have, and managed to keep the confidentiality of the employee. It seems the only other choice would have been to not tell anyone. I can’t think of any other better way to handle this.

    1. LBK*

      Agreed. This seems like pretty much the perfect response to the situation on HR’s part – I can’t think of how I would’ve done it differently.

      1. AnonyMouse*

        Yeah it’s an awkward situation, but I think HR did the right thing. The only issue I could see with this approach is that some office busybodies might take it as an invitation to speculate and gossip about who might Hep A – but not saying anything and hoping no one got sick probably wasn’t a responsible option, so this still seems best.

    2. BRR*

      I totally agree with this. Sometimes people get upset but they don’t have a solution in mind (or sometimes people’s preferred solution is to go back in time and prevent the situation from happening). The only other thing I would add for a solution is to cancel pot lucks for a while (I’m also genuinely curious how many potlucks the OP has to make it an issue).

      1. Chinook*

        Even if there aren’t many potlucks in the office, Hep A is a communicable disease and it is good to know that individuals may want to take extra hygiene precautions (i.e. maybe wash their own coffee mug and bring their own utensils in case there is a Joey in the office). This is especially true is someone is immune compromised or lives with someone who is. Also, it may cue some people to get vaccinated (if they can) whereas they may have had no reaason to in the past.

    3. Monodon monoceros*

      I 100% agree. We had a situation at my last work that I wish they had handled like this. Actually it was a bit worse because multiple people got MRSA from a work-related activity, and any of the rest of us doing that activity were at risk, but they didn’t say anything until I pushed the issue. I went to my boss, nothing happened. I went to the dept head, nothing happened. I went to HR, nothing happened. Finally when I went to the “Risk Management Officer” and told him what was happening, and I wrote up information and made a sign, then he finally sent out an email to the people involved in that activity, and put up the signs I made in the area, and made the dept head take some actions to reduce the chances of spreading it (i.e., washing clothes that we were supposed to wear while in a quarantine area, quarantine for a different situation).

      The dept head and HR should have done this right away, without prompting. I knew of pregnant people, and people with compromised immune systems that were blissfully ignorant of the situation, that were exposing themselves daily, and were pissed that it took weeks for management to let them know.

  4. Livin' in a Box*

    The Hep A vaccine is quite effective, but potlucks are still gross. People do crazy, crazy things in their kitchens. I know a guy who keeps his cat’s litter box on the kitchen counter and thinks that’s ok. Another doesn’t believe in refrigeration…

      1. Anonyby*

        My cat(s) are never allowed on the kitchen counters because the idea squicks me out so much.

        On the other hand, there was an episode of My Cat From Hell where Jackson Galaxy advised the owners to put a litterbox on their counter. Only it was merely a temporary thing, one step in adjusting the habits of a cat that was peeing inappropriately (including on kitchen appliances, ruining them). Once the source cause of the stress that made the cat pee inappropriately was fixed and new habits formed, they removed the litter box from the counter.

        1. Dmented Kitty*

          I know that episode. Having two cats, if it’s necessary then I’ll suck it up. I’ll probably be spraying Lysol all over the counter before food prep, though, and be as far away from the box as possible (even if I know that’s all in the mind). Cat pee on my kitchen is nastier, I’d rather clean it from the litterbox than from the counters.

    1. Diet Coke Addict*

      I know people who keep their cat box in the kitchen and think nothing of the cat walking all over the counter (and all I can think of is “poopy feet! Poopy feet! Poopy feet!!!”). I didn’t want to eat anything that came out of that kitchen. Potlucks can suck in a lot of different ways, but the potential for “food from gross people’s kitchens” is a big one.

      1. fposte*

        I don’t think the feet become much less problematic if the litter box is farther away, though. It’s just bringing the thing that’s usually out of sight to the fore.

        1. Diet Coke Addict*

          Oh yes–which si why I’m obsessive about training my cats to stay off the counter and using enough Lysol to drown a horse–but it’s decidedly distasteful to watch (and smell) a cat do its business, then blithely hop up to the counter to smell your dinner.

        2. CTO*

          My cat’s litter box is at the opposite end of my house from my kitchen, but I harbor no illusions that his paws are clean when he hops up on my counters (which is pretty rare, but he’s resisted every form of training to get the frequency down to zero). I clean and sanitize the counters before use, especially (!) if I’m preparing food for other people.

          1. Gene*

            Scat Mat works. Ours pretty much stays put away; when new cats come into the house and they get large enough to make it to the counters, it goes on for a week or so, moving around to different parts of the counter. Occasionally the smart cat figures out it’s not there and it needs to come out for another week; but that’s only been a problem with this one cat in the last 25 years.

            1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

              “when they get large enough to make it to the counter”


              This is always a monumental moment for any kitten-parent. It’s like when babies start moving around on their own. It changes EVERYTHING.

              I did have one who got larger width-wise first, so he could hardly get on the bed on the first try until he was a year old. It’s the skinny, athletic ones that keep you on your toes first!

              1. LBK*

                I’m blessed to have a cat that seems to have zero interest in counters or tables. I hope she lives forever so I never have to train another cat to stay off. We eventually gave up with my cat growing up because nothing worked.

          2. Elizabeth*

            I also don’t cut food directly on my counter (granite countertops). That’s why I have cutting boards.

            1. the gold digger*

              Exactly! A friend asked why I didn’t just keep the cats off the counter and I thought, “You have obviously never owned cats.”

              Any food prep I do is on a cutting board. Even if I didn’t have cats, I sure wouldn’t be cutting anything without a cutting board.

              1. Natalie*

                I don’t even have pets and I usually end up wiping down my counters before any extensive food prep. They’re white, so it’s really obvious when there’s crumbs or coffee grounds or something on the counter. Germs aside, I don’t want coffee bits in a delicate vinaigrette. :)

            2. CTO*

              Oh, for sure. But I still realize that I might set something directly on the counter, or the bottom of a dish might touch the counter and then touch something else (or my hands), etc.

              1. fposte*

                Right. Generally stuff you put on the counter gets picked up again, and that’s a likely transfer point.

                I don’t actually think it’s a huge deal (even the toxoplasmosis risk is apparently somewhat overblown), but limiting food to a cutting board doesn’t mean the counter is irrelevant.

                1. Anx*

                  Yes. It all depends on how conscientious you are. I personally will have a ‘magic island’ cutting board sometimes when I dont’ have time to wipe down the counter first, but keep track of where every utensil ends up and don’t let anything slip off the board.

        3. Bea W*

          I’m thinking feet of any species on the food counter is pretty gross. People don’t stand in the toilet, but they go walking outside where all sorts of things have been on the ground.

          1. Heather*

            People don’t stand in the toilet

            Excuse me, but there are Ministry of Magic employees who would take exception to that statement.

            Can we have a thread about whether it’s unreasonable for management to require employees to flush themselves into the office?

      2. Betsy Bobbins*

        I worked with a women who often brought in baked goods to the office. I later learned she had attempted to cremate her cat in her oven at home. Needless to say after that nugget of information came to light I could no longer eat cookies from the cat crematorium.

        1. Lily in NYC*

          This is just beyond crazy. Gives a whole new meaning to “animal crackers”. Holy crap, I just remembered that many moons ago, my cousin’s pet bunny froze to death and she thought she could bring him back to life if she thawed him out in the oven (RIP, Oreo). But she was only around 10 years old!

        2. BritCred*

          I hate to ask but …… “attempted to” sounds like it failed? I almost want to hear the rest of this story – how it was found out, what they did with the poor cat after that, etc….

          1. Betsy Bobbins*

            Well, conventional ovens do not get hot enough to burn a body to ashes, so basically the cat was ‘cooked’ and eventually buried in the back yard. I had heard rumor of this story but wanted to verify so I steered a conversation with her onto pets and eventually onto losing pets. To my horror and dismay she did confirm the attmpted cremation happened…in her oven…same one she was currently baking in.

        3. Poe*

          I just had to show this post to my coworkers after spraying Diet Coke everywhere out my nose. So…now Alison has some new readers, and my nose hurts :)

      3. Adonday Veeah*

        Oh, ick! For the first time in my life, I’m glad my cat is disabled. (Sorry for your arthritis, babykins, but I’m suddenly very happy you can’t get on my kitchen counters!)

      4. Chinook*

        As a late to life cat owner, I agree at the ick factor with the cat on the kitchen counter. When I am there, he goes for a short flight when he comes into the kitchen, but I don’t know what he does when I am not there. As a result, I never do anything directly on the countertops and any cutting boards and mats go away when not in use.

        As a side note – cats do learn quickly. When we first got a ceramic top stove, the cat walked on it once after dinner and never touched it after that (because that type of stove retains heat even after it is off).

        1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec*

          “I don’t know what he does when I’m not there”

          I agree – cats all have secret lives. I had a cat who never EVER got on the kitchen table because that was a huge no-no – but if you ever came downstairs in the middle of the night and caught him off guard he’s be all stretched up purring on the tablecloth.

      1. Sparrow*

        Signs just went up for our annual Halloween potluck, and now I’m trying to figure out a reason to work from home that day.

      2. Nerd Girl*

        I work for a company where potlucks are a big thing. Lucky for me, we have a full kitchen here at the office so nearly everyone brings the ingredients in and assembles their dish to share there so it’s nice and fresh. Those who don’t do this usually bring in a bag of chips or jar of salsa. There’s only one woman who’s food I avoid because of her questionable hygiene.

      3. gr8 candidate*

        Yes! No one ever eats what a certain individual brings to potlucks. Partly it is due to her cats that are all over her kitchen. It is also because she imposes her “lite” recipes on everyone. We can never be sure what is in a dish (except for cat cooties).

    2. Cleopatra Jones*

      One of the many reasons I do not eat home made goods from anyone, if I haven’t seen their kitchen.

      1. Adonday Veeah*

        Even that’s not a good termining factor. My kitchen has a secret life. There’s my “company” kitchen, and then there’s my “weekend-in-my-jammies-streaming-Criminal-Intent” kitchen.

        1. Karowen*

          Yeah, but at least you have some sense of “hey, other people like clean kitchens!,” which to me means that if you’re cooking something for me, it’ll at least be clean at the start. I feel like there are tons of horror stories about people with mold and all sorts of grime and disgusting-ness in their kitchen when they’re having people over. THOSE are the people whose food I would stay away from.

          1. Adonday Veeah*

            I once grossed someone out by telling her I found maggots in my kitchen. She asked me about it for years — “for realz? Maggots? You had maggots in your kitchen?” She thought I was some kind of weird filthy person or something. Finally I put her out of her misery and told her it was because spouse and I had gone away for a vacation and had forgotten to toss out one final bag of garbage out of the kitchen, and we came home to maggots. She was so relieved that I wasn’t a “maggots in my kitchen” kind of person as a rule, and I did enjoy her stunned awe for as long as it lasted. Amazing what we aspire to when we’re young.

          2. Anx*

            To be honest, I don’t think messy kitchens are a big deal.

            I trained for health inspection, and some of the prettiest, cleanest looking kitchens were the most hazardous because staff didn’t understand cross contamination issues or that beef and chicken have different safety standards. Time and temperature are the biggest reasons I’d avoid potlucks. Lower sanitation standards are rarely significant until food is sitting out of temperature for a few hours and bacteria can multiply.

    3. Kyrielle*

      Oh god. Oh god that’s gross. My cats aren’t allowed on the counter at ANY time, and besides I wash it before I do anything, and the litterbox is not even in the same half of the house, and oh ew!

      Ew ew ew.

    4. Rebecca*

      I wish we would do away with potlucks all together, and put money together to buy food from a deli. One of my coworkers has terrible hygiene. We saw her feet this summer when she wore flip flops. Her feet are absolutely filthy, and her flip flops are so dirty you can’t tell what color they used to be. Ditto fingernails – there are bands of crud under her nails. If she doesn’t scrub her fingernails or wash her feet before coming to work, does she wash her hands before preparing food? It gives me the serious heebie jeebies.

      1. AdminAnon*

        I wish we would do away with potlucks all together, and put money together to buy food from a deli.

        Ha! That’s a good idea in theory, but I’ve worked in plenty of restaurants in the past and….well, let’s just say that I will take homemade food over restaurant food any day of the week. Then again, my office is small (~20 people) and I’ve seen most of my co-workers’ kitchens at one point or another.

        1. Cat*

          I know, people wouldn’t be happy if they knew what went on at restaurant kitchens either. You really have two options: only make food you eat yourself or avoid obvious issues and otherwise figure what you don’t know won’t hurt you. I do the second and it’s been fine. I could be felled by salmonella someday but I’ll take it in exchange for a lifetime of delicious food.

        1. the_scientist*

          I think we’re all germophobes to some extent….just fairly rational ones. Then again, my friend is a microbiologist and her grad school supervisor washed all her produce in vinegar, which is next-level germophobia, in my opinion.

          1. fposte*

            Really? I do that–a vinegar and water spray in a bottle, actually–because Cook’s Illustrated tested it as being much more effective than water, and it’s vaguely entertaining, whereas straight out rinsing is just boring.

            I wonder if this balances out all my germ indifference and makes me average.

          2. OhNo*

            Washing produce in vinegar can also help it last longer, at least for certain foods (strawberries and raspberries, for one – mine last twice as long since I started doing a vinegar rinse before putting them in the fridge).

    5. ThursdaysGeek*

      Your stories are gross, but potlucks are almost always fine, with some great food that you can’t find at a commercial deli: salad made with real tomatoes from the garden; bambi chili; roast pork with sweet potatoes, parsnips, and apples; chocolate and cherry fudge that is better than anything you can buy. If you suspect a co-worker has bad hygiene or a dirty kitchen, then avoid their food, but you’re missing out if you avoid all potluck food.

      1. ThursdaysGeek*

        Although, for the letter writer’s situation, avoiding even having a potluck is probably a good idea.

      2. Case of the Mondays*

        Clearly, these people never worked in the restaurant industry or they would never eat out again. Do you eat dinner at friend’s houses ever? I just don’t understand the germ-o-phobia. You might have a stronger immune system if you let yourself be exposed to some germs once in awhile.

        1. Case of the Mondays*

          BTW – I got e-coli once and the health department tracked it to a local deli all my coworkers and I frequented. Nothing is totally safe.

          1. mel*

            One thing I was surprised to learn while working in a restaurant, is that restaurants DON’T CLOSE when they spectacularly fail the health inspection.

        2. Anonsie*

          I go back and forth on this. On the one hand, having worked in a commercial kitchen (in catering no less, which I really believe is the worst possible type) and I feel people highly over-estimate the cleanliness of professionally prepared food. On the other hand, the variety of sources of muck in someone’s house coupled with their complete privacy could probably generate some pretty new and exciting ways to make people sick.

          1. Cat*

            But if nobody got sick from the last umpteen company potlucks, odds are nobody is gonna die from this one either.

            1. Anonsie*

              Well. Sure, it’s not likely that I’ll get listeria from fruit. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop washing them, know what I mean? I don’t think it’s paranoid to not eat potluck food because you don’t know where it came from.

        3. ThursdaysGeek*

          True, the horror stories told in the training from when I’ve had to get my food handler’s card describe conditions worse than any home than I’ve ever been in. Add that to the lack of sick time allowed to most restaurant workers, and potlucks are bound to be safer than a lot of restaurants.

      3. Chinook*

        I agree – without potlucks I never would have discovered the joy of homemade perogies, easy to make cabbage rolls and Sex in a Pan.

          1. Chinook*

            Not mine but a staple from one of the church ladies who takes extreme pleasure in offering it to the priest.

                1. A Bug!*

                  That’s pretty much the recipe as I have it, except mine calls for shaved or grated chocolate flakes. It’s been one of my favourite desserts since I was ten years old, although I’m less prone to getting the giggles when I say it now.

                  I guess maybe it’s a Western-Canadian thing? High-five, Chinook!

      4. Another Poster*

        Yes! Totally this. I love office pot lucks. I’m sure there’s some grossness I have no idea about but it’s no worse than some restaurant stories I’ve heard and those don’t stop me from trying new places.

        PlaceIUsedtoWork had favorite food day and the selection was pretty unimaginable. They had lots of food events and everyone loved it.

    6. hayling*

      OMG I was at a family member’s house and she was cleaning the litter box and left the empty box on the dining table. I just about puked.

    7. Be the Change*

      Oh, everyone, gee. Take it from the gal who used to work with *literal* shit — most people are way too easily squicked out. Most of the rest of the world wipes their bottoms with their bare hands, you know. As long as you have access to clean water and soap, don’t worry so much.

      I have never once, ever, gotten sick from eating from a field, a potluck, or anyone’s home. And I’ve eaten a few things that…let’s just say that if you’re in the middle of a field with fresh strawberries breathing hot and sweet in June sunshine, you don’t hesitate just because Canada geese live in that field too.

    8. BritCred*

      Not quite as bad as this but I do have a friend who has 7 cats and one in particular loves being in the kitchen – and she’s a molter! He’ll wipe everything down before use due to this. His wife? not always so good. So the day he found she hadn’t checked and wiped down the bread knife and he got extra cat hair in his sandwiches caused a hell of a row…..

  5. kozinskey*

    I find myself a little skeeved out that this company’s HR department felt that this was something worth sharing. I’m of the mindset that unless the people I’m around have something highly contagious, or I’m sleeping with them, it’s really none of my damn business what medical conditions they are dealing with. I get that this company was trying to be proactive, but it’s not like they were under a legal obligation to do so, and I think the end result here was that the words HEPATITIS A became really, really scary and maybe stigmatized to the staff.

    And yes, there will always be some people in public restrooms who don’t wash their hands consistently, so that’s something everyone should be conscientious about.

      1. Bea W*

        This is true, and it sounds like HR did not disclose which employee was infected. Hep A and B are contagious through the oral/fecal route, unlike Hep C which is contagious only though bodily fluids, in the same manner AIDs is transmitted – sexual contact, blood, dirty needles, etc. The Hep A/B virus is in feces, and a common source of infection in the US is contaminated food, someone comes in contact with infected matter and then handles food. Hand washing when using the bathroom is a legit concern here.The OP can’t control what other people do, but they can protect themselves by practicing good hygiene on their own.

        1. Bea W*

          Gah! CORRECTION! I always get Hep B confused for some reason. It’s Hep A that is fecal/oral. The Hep B infection route is similar to Hep C – bodily fluids, sex, blood, etc – not feces.

        2. OP-hepa*

          All forms of hepatitis are spread via bodily substances, not limited to the fecal/oral route. Hep A is spreadable by sexual contact and sharing needles, which is why I mentioned it. The most common transmission route is fecal-oral, but it’s certainly not the only one. That’s why family members and sexual partners of someone diagnosed with Hep A also have to get tested, among many other communicable diseases.

    1. Armchair Analyst*

      In some situations, the administration IS obligated to inform of illnesses. Think of a children’s classroom – preschool or daycare. They’re obligated to inform all parents when a child is sick with strep throat, influenza, or, yes, scabies (I was a teacher at a preschool and this happened), and lice, among other diseases/infestations. It’s usually because these, ah, diseases or infestations (conditions?) are highly or somewhat contaigous, or are in that environment.

    2. Natalie*

      Hep A is highly contagious, though, and if they don’t know everyone’s vaccination status is makes sense to alert people.

    3. Traveler*

      Hepatitis can be pretty contagious. I’ve heard doctors recommending going to extremes like not even sharing the same towels in the house.

      Also RE: Vaccine, it is effective, but some people need booster shots as they get older.

      1. Bea W*

        I can see that, particularly bath towels where people are wiping areas that are commonly in contact with infected fecal matter.

      2. Natalie*

        Yep, the vaccine lasts a long time (25 years) but not forever. Some of OP’s coworkers may want to get re-vaccinated for Hep A if they originally got the shot as children.

        1. Natalie*

          To be extra clear, it doesn’t wear off completely at year 25. It may be less effective at that point and may not. For most healthy people in the developed world, this is not a concern because they’re aren’t exposed to Hep A, but for some people if might be.

    4. Camellia*

      I really do appreciate the idea that everyone should wash their hands for 20 seconds in warm water, scrubbing vigorously, as the posted signs in my company’s restroom requests.

      No one will ever see me doing that. I am sensitive to (apparently) all soaps, cleansers, shampoos, etc., even those that are fragrance free and hypoallergenic. The skin on my hands has reactions anywhere from severe itching to literally peeling down to a bloody mess. You would think that a “skin” problem would affect all areas of the skin but I am deeply and thankfully grateful that it does not, only my hands are affected. I wear non-latex gloves in the shower, avoid soap at all other times, and everything is okay.

      I do keep hand sanitizer at my desk. But no one in the restroom is likely to know that, just as they do not know the reason I do not wash my hands there. So if anyone is rude enough to “remind” me to wash my hands I plan on saying, “Nope. I just lick them clean.”

      Because I am evil like that. ^-^

      1. Heather*

        Washing your hands is mostly about physically removing the germs, not killing them…the soap is just a surfactant that makes it harder for microbes to stick to the skin and so more come off. But just washing with water would work too (if the water itself doesn’t bother your skin) and it would save you the dirty looks.

        Then again, it would also deny you the opportunity to tell people you lick your hands clean, so… :)

        1. Camellia*

          I didn’t actually know that so I will definitely keep it in mind. I haven’t had the opportunity to say that to anyone yet, either. And now I’m overwhelming urge…to hang around in the restroom not-washing-my-hands just to try to provoke someone into saying something…must resist…must…

          1. Anx*

            I must admit, I get very icked out by this behavior in general (not washing your hands).

            If you don’t have a good reason not to do it, I think it’s incredibly rude. I do try not to judge individuals for this very reason, but when the fail-t0-wash rates are so high, it really is unnerving.

            I have eczema, so I totally understand not washing your hands for skin reasons.

            How scratchy are the paper towels in the bathroom? Because sometimes I just wipe my hands with a paper towel during the day because I can’t handwash too frequently.

  6. Turanga Leela*

    Just wanted to pipe in that I don’t think sex and dirty needles are transmission routes for Hepatitis A. They are for Hepatitis B&C, but A is generally transmitted through food and water.

    1. Xay*

      Well, some kinds of sex can transmit Hepatitis A since it is oral-fecal transmitted. But since the OP has been vaccinated, they should be fine. HR was right to notify everyone, but they probably should have recommended that everyone get vaccinated as well and provided some general education rather than just saying “Someone’s got Hep A – you’re on your own!”.

      1. Turanga Leela*

        Ha, you’re absolutely right. I was thinking of more traditional sex. My badly expressed point was, it’s not bloodborne like HIV and the other forms of hepatitis. The letter was a little unclear on that point.

        1. Mister Pickle*

          No, your point was expressed well. It’s just that some people are into extremely weird stuff these days. I blame the Internet.

          1. Turanga Leela*

            Well, I used to work in public health (specifically sexual health), so I’m a little sheepish I didn’t think of this. This particular practice definitely predates the internet!

          2. TL -*

            These days? People have been into really weird stuff for a very, very long time. :P
            They just didn’t film it and put it on the Internet.

      2. Lynn*

        BTW, I got the impression from the OP that HR did send out some information about Hep A, which, we can only hope, included the fact that there is a vaccine for it.

  7. Mme Pomme*

    I suppose HR was thinking “better safe than sorry” to worn people.

    It is more than what happened at my place of work when somone spread pinkeye to multiple people by not washing his hands and touching lots of other people’s work spaces. Same person had scabies a couple months later – as soon as management found out, he was not allowed at work until he was being treated by a doctor.

    1. fposte*

      You can’t just get it through the air–you have to ingest it. So little kids are at higher risk because their toilet habits aren’t the tidiest and they put their hands in their mouths all the time. If somebody with Hepatitis A is working at a restaurant, that’s more of a problem than in an office because they’re touching people’s food (clean hands/gloves minimize the risk but don’t eliminate it).

      1. Sadsack*

        I am imagining people at work who don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom, or say just blowing their nose, then going to the cafeteria and using the utensils at the salad bar that the rest of us also use.

        1. fposte*

          Blowing their nose wouldn’t transmit virus–it’s all in the digestive system. The salad tongs might matter if you touch your food or your mouth with your hands afterwards.

          (There are other organisms with the same oral-fecal contagion route, which is why handwashing is a good precaution generally, whether there’s a hepatitis A outbreak or not.)

          1. fposte*

            The other thing to note is that it’s not automatic that you’d get it even in such a situation.

  8. Mister Pickle*

    I understand how being informed that someone has the disease could creep you out, but to a large extent, the things you would do to avoid catching HAV are things that you should being doing on a regular basis anyway, whether HAV is present or not: wash your hands frequently, be careful about what you choose to eat, etc.

    And do I even need to say this? It could have been something much worse than Hepatitus.

  9. BOMA*

    I think the HR department handled it perfectly. They alerted people about a (admittedly low) health risk, let people make their own decisions regarding their health, and protected the patient’s name. Honestly, this is a pretty ideal response.

    As for protecting yourself from Hepatitis A, the vaccination is actually fairly effective and should reduce your risk to almost nothing. It’s not really analogous to typhoid, where the vaccine doesn’t always work and you can still run the risk of contracting it in certain countries. If you have questions about the Hep A vaccine, the CDC website is a great place to start.

    And +1 to what everyone else said about potlucks – it’s a great idea, but you have no idea how terrible your coworkers’ hygiene in the kitchen is.

    1. fposte*

      I’m agreeing–this seemed like a reasonable way to handle the situation. Presumably the information they included included reminders to wash hands after using the bathroom, so any signs in the bathroom would be redundant anyway.

  10. soitgoes*

    I think HR handled this very well.

    Maybe you could keep a bottle of antibacterial hand gel at your desk and use it frequently in front of other people. Then you’d have the excuse to offer it to others. “Woops, sorry to interrupt, but I’m weird about germs after the Hep A thing. Gotta disinfect. Want any?”

        1. fposte*

          Looks like that’s highly virus-dependent, interestingly. Even alcohol-based sanitizers aren’t a match for norovirus and C. diff, but they’re better than soap and water for flu virus. From what I can see, the difference is “enveloped” vs. “nonenveloped” (not sure what exactly it means) viruses. Hepatitis B is “nonenveloped” and gets nailed nicely by alcohol-based sanitizers, but hepatitis A is “enveloped” and won’t be very affected by it.

          So you’re right that I was wrong on the sanitizer as well–but don’t throw it away, because it will be useful for other viruses.

          1. fposte*

            Aaaand I got the enveloped and nonenveloped viruses reversed. Still don’t know what it means, but I might as well represent them correctly.

          2. Laufey*

            Enveloped viruses have a protein and lipid shell that protects all the functional bits of the virus. They are harder to kill/sanitize and are generally more adaptable.

  11. Artemesia*

    Anyone who ever eats in a restaurant should have Hep A vaccinations and then you don’t have to worry about it. This is not transmitted by needles or sex like Hep B, this is hand mouth and can be transmitted by poor hygiene (which you can assume exists) as well as contaminated food or water.

    By letting people know, they are in a position to take steps to vaccinate or follow up illnesses that might not alarm them if they didn’t know they could be HepA.

    1. fposte*

      Any idea of how insurance handles voluntary vaccination for those outside of the highly recommended groups? I could see being interested, but I don’t want to pay out of pocket.

      1. LBK*

        Hep A is on the list of recommended vaccines designated by the ACA, so it should be covered in full through any in-network provider. Link to source in the next comment so moderation doesn’t eat this one.

      2. CTO*

        I’m sure that varies widely by insurance company and plan. Mine paid for a Hep A vaccination years ago before I went to Mexico (where Hep A is more common). Apparently Hep A is now a standard vaccination for children, so some insurance plans might cover adults because of that…?

        1. the gold digger*

          If you have a job that requires you to travel, your company should pay for your vaccination. That’s how I got my Hep A&B series. (So much better than the GG shot I had to get every three months when I was a Peace Corps volunteer.) (I think it was A&B – could have been C. Felt like a horse had kicked my arm.)

      3. KJR*

        FWIW, I just took my daughter in for it this summer before international travel, and it was covered at 100% under preventative services.

        1. fposte*

          Yeah, for kids, pre-travel, and other risk groups it’s recommended, but I’m none of those. However, sounds like the ACA might give me an in anyway.

  12. Clover*

    I agree that HR made the right call, you might have people working in your office who have compromised immune systems or pre-existing liver conditions who might need to make decisions about whether they should be vaccinated.

    How often do you have potlucks in your office? Unless they’re a really frequent occurrence I wouldn’t have thought it would be a big deal to avoid them. I generally avoid the ones in my current workplace at this time of year as there’s always some bug going around and I know some of my co-workers have pretty poor hand hygiene.

  13. Clover*

    Also, if you’re really worried about Hep A you might want to talk to your doctor about vaccination. If you only had one vaccination (instead of two) you might not be protected any longer. Generally one vaccination protects you for up to one year, the ‘booster’ shot extend that to at least 20 years.

  14. Malissa*

    Hep A is a reportable communicable disease. Meaning that if the infected person went to a doctor, they were required to let everybody they might have been in contact with know about it. So HR was probably required to spread the word, but their execution left a lot to be desired. Like a link to the local health agency for vaccination information, or symptoms of the disease, or the instructions that if you are or become symptomatic that you should stay home from work.

    1. LBK*

      Eh, I don’t think it’s necessarily better or worse to include more info/instructions in the email. It can push the line of making someone’s healthcare decisions for them, and people usually don’t appreciate their employer doing that.

      1. KerryOwl*

        I disagree that providing information is the same thing as making a decision on someone else’e behalf.

    2. AnonyMouse*

      The OP actually mentioned that HR is forwarding more information about Hep A out to everyone so they can decide how best to handle the situation and their own health – assuming the “more information” includes info on vaccines, symptoms etc I think that’s just about all they can do.

  15. Raptor*

    So, I thought I’d throw this in. I actually have a skin disorder called contact dermatitis. It causes my hands to have a red rash on my hands and also causes deep cracks to appear on my skin and eventually, the damage heals, but not before I lose most of the skin on my hands. Yeah, it’s painful. I have no fingerprints as a result and that’s resulted in some interesting problems. It’s caused by a lack of oils in the skin.

    Anyway, one of the many things I’m allergic to is soaps, including the soap used in most restrooms (dial). Unless I know what soap is being used in the dispenser, I can’t take the risk of using it. Add to this is that while not being allergic to water, too much hand washing can also make matters worse. Not fun.

    I and germs are not friends, so this resorted in me going to rather interesting lengths to make sure I could keep my hands clean and not suffer a break out. Mostly it involved bringing my own bar soap with me wherever I went and being absolutely sure to pack it for any trips. And failing that, I just avoided going to the bathroom unless I really had to. Or identified what places actually put something other than Dial soap in their restrooms.

    When the alcohol things came onto the market, they were useful, but still I couldn’t use them (drying agent), unless I used them and then used lotion. So that means I was carrying two bottles everywhere. However, these days they now offer up hand gels that have lotion in them. Woot! My day is saved. No hand washing and no carrying lots of little bottles around.

    Now.. to that end, if you are really worried about people not washing their hands… and there are lots of reasons they won’t (mine is the exception to the rule, but allergies do exist!)… put in hand gel dispensers in the bathrooms, right near the door. People will be more inclined to use it, because they are about to touch a door they know is dirty.

    1. TotesMaGoats*

      Contact dermatitis plus eczema here. I hate washing my hands because of the cracking. Not to mention the allergenic effects of some soaps.

      1. Anx*

        Eczema here, too. Excessive handwashing damages our skin layers, but we’re also more prone to skin infections int he first place.

        I am lucky in that I can wash my hands pretty much until the winter. Then I switch to kitchen/bathroom only and wipe my hands on disposable towels when out and about.

    2. AVP*

      Ouch! I don’t have anything near as bad, but my hands get reallllly uncomfortably dry from most of the cheap hand soap in public restrooms to the point where I’ve seriously considered bringing my own around. Bringing my own lotion with me to use after doesn’t seem to help much. Plus one for the possibility of those dispensers!

      1. Raptor*

        You might have to opt for a more expensive lotion. It took me a long time of trial and error (with errors being painful) to find one that worked.

        Ponds I swear changed their formula… or something about my dermatitis changed. But that stuff used to work. I’m also allergic to Shea butter and aloe, making my shopping for lotion a lot harder.

        So far, my best bet has been Goldbond, intensive healing. And for shampoo, I use one called phyto blue, cause yep, I’m allergic to most shampoos too.

    3. OP-hepa*

      That’s exactly why I didn’t want to try to bring shaming or stigma into it — not the person with the infection, and not folks with eczema or contact dermatitis who can’t use soap. Thanks for mentioning this, I have friends with this same issue and I understand that handwashing actually exposes them to more risk because it causes their hands to crack and bleed.

  16. Mena*

    I think your HR department is handling this correctly – making you aware so you can then make the decisions you are comfortable with.
    Some years back I attended a conference and was later notified that a food service worker had been diagnosed with HepA. The host of the conference did pretty much what your HR department has done and I then had a phone conversation with my physician’s office to assess risk. The key was being made aware.

  17. Lily in NYC*

    I need a really hot shower after reading all of these comments! I am so skeeved out right now.

  18. KayDee*

    I am in HR and had to send out a similar email when someone in my building was diagnosed with chicken pox. It was simply information about chicken pox and the options available. Some of the staff who are prone to being germaphobic got a little antsy. I simply followed up with pointing out to them that they are exposed to all sorts of unknown nastiness (including chicken pox) at the grocery store, hockey rink, from handling money, from the kids bringing germs home from school, etc. Things quieted down pretty quickly after that.

  19. Jeanne*

    HR was right to make you aware. Especially someone with a compromised immune system would probably need to call their doctor for advice. Even people with great hygiene can contact Hep A, esp at restaurants. You don’t know if the person who has it washes their hands or not. I agree they want you to make your own choices.

    The best thing is to wash your own hands thoroughly with soap and running water. Use a clean paper towel to open the door and throw that out at your desk. Wash your hands as soon as you get home. Try not to touch your own eyes or nose at work. I know, easier said than done.

    For potlucks, use your best judgement. I always took only hot cooked items. You can decline all of it if you want. I personally would fake an errand that has to be run at lunch but your choice. Try not to panic. Diseases are out there and you get exposed. You can’t live in a bubble.

  20. AndersonDarling*

    I can see why the OP asked the question. I work in a department of 4, so if I got an email saying someone in my department had a disease, I would feel like it was an invasion of privacy. (It’s not me, it’s not her, it’s not him, then it must be him.)
    After reading everyone’s comments, I feel better about how it was handled, although I am still unnerved a bit. I would hate to tell HR that I need time away to treat X disease, then get an email saying “someone” in your department has X disease so you better “watch out.”
    I think a general reminder to wash hands because it is the flu season should suffice. But I’m not in HR, so I don’t know the regulations or liability that is involved.

  21. Natalie*

    This reminds me of school – when someone had a reportable disease we’d get a half sheet to take home to our parents. I remember “scarlet fever” distinctly because it was in my Laura Ingalls Wilder books.

    1. Lizzie*

      Yup! We still do this at my school. And even though it usually results in a flood of parent phone calls, I think it’s the right move.

  22. OP-hepa*

    OP here. Wow, thanks for all the comments.

    I contacted an old friend who works in HR, who told me that certain types of infections such as hepatitis trigger mandatory reporting to the state health department. She said that her best guess was that most likely, the person was diagnosed with the infection, their doctor reported it to the health department, and the health department informed our employer. So that’s probably why HR decided to notify everyone. Some people made comments about transmission, and if you don’t know the routes through which contagious diseases like Hepatitis A is spread, you should check out the CDC’s factsheets about transmission. All types of hepatitis are spread through bodily fluids; the most common route of Hep A infection is the fecal-oral route through contaminated foods. Which is why I was a little concerned about potlucks, because I’ve seen some unbelievably low standards for hygiene in my day as a former healthcare worker.

    Secondly, people deal with chronic illness all the time and my intent is not to shame anyone or make them feel bad. I feel really bad for the person with this condition, and I hope their privacy is maintained. I’m not going to post passive-aggressive notes about handwashing (I have friends who had a hard time using soap because of severe eczema), and I’m certainly not going to make comments to my coworkers. I have no idea who has this condition, and I really don’t want to know because it’s none of my business.

    I realize that common sense ain’t common, and although my home kitchen would probably pass a commercial health inspection with flying colors (my mom was very serious about food safety and maintaining a spotless home and raised me with the same values), not everybody was raised like that or maintains that level of cleanliness in their home. Although I got vaccinated, vaccines aren’t 100% effective, so I’m probably going to lay off the potluck foods unless they were prepared in a commercial kitchen.

      1. Not So NewReader*

        I am chuckling. I loved this article. And it barely scratches the surface of the minutiae that needs to be attended to.
        In my state you cannot reuse containers. For example it is a huge no-no to use a clean spaghetti sauce jar to store something else. (So much for reusing.) Kitchen sinks must have three basins. Your hot tap water must be heated to a certain temp. No cloth towels or sponges or brushes are allowed. If you use bleach you must control the proportions of water to bleach. All prepared foods in the fridge must have an expiration date on them. (There is a chart to use.) Dishes should air dry, (paper) towel drying is discouraged.
        I could go on and on. It’s fascinating though. My kitchen would be a massive fail. There are very few household kitchens that could get through a health code inspection.

        1. ThursdaysGeek*

          Yeah, in our state you need three sinks for dish washing, and a separate sink for hand washing. So my kitchen, no matter how clean, will fail. Our church kitchen has three sinks, which means the one time a year when we have a public eating event, not only are the foods we can offer very limited (yay, potato bar!), but we cannot wash and reuse any dishes until the event is over.

      2. fposte*

        Oh, that is hilarious! (And it even addresses the cat.) The cutting board thing makes me think of the British sitcom Chef and the kitchen inspection episode: “I’ll set my cracked tile on you!”

  23. Elizabeth the Ginger*

    If you have coworkers who weren’t washing their hands anyway (and just for laziness reasons, not reasons like the skin conditions mentioned above), putting up signs won’t change their behavior. It’s not as if the benefits of handwashing are a big secret. Every public restroom has a sign proclaiming its importance; doctors’ offices have posters about proper technique; we teach schoolchildren ad nauseum about washing hands. If that – plus an email about a specific communicable disease in your office! – hasn’t turned them into handwashers, a note by the sink won’t be the thing that inspires them.

  24. Not So NewReader*

    I think that we are going to see more and more of this mandatory reporting in years to come. It’s good in some ways that people can plan how they want to handle it. But it’s bad in other ways because it seems to cause panic, too. However, this is the world we’ve got.

    I have heard of known carriers of x disease (don’t want to say to avoid too much identifying info) working in nursing homes and such. I guess some of these places are so desperate for help they don’t ask these questions. It boggles my brain.

    1. Lucy Ricardo*

      As long as the workers use universal precaution (which they should use regardless), they can avoid transmitting any diseases. It wouldn’t be right to not hire a person based on a disease that they have, in fact it’s illegal.

      1. fposte*

        Well, it’s not straight out illegal, though–there’s no law saying “You have to hire anybody regardless of their disease and what position they’re in.” GINA is more specific than that, and the ADA is more situational, save for HIV, which is the one condition it actually names. So it *could* be illegal but you can’t say that it automatically is.

        The challenge is that situations where you’re well enough to work but are a lifelong superspreader with on-the-job behavior, à la Typhoid Mary, are pretty unusual, at least in the oral-fecal type stuff. But if you knew your applicant was indeed Typhoid Mary, there’s no clear law that would force you to hire her for your restaurant prep.

    2. Anx*

      If we had laws or guidelines against this, what do you think we would do about an employee who can no longer work in their field because of a chance infection?

      Do you think disability would cover it?

  25. Silver*

    Last year several people at my office came down with Whooping Cough so we had several of the same kind of email from HR.
    Unfortunately it wasn’t as easy to guard against infection as this case. (Whooping Couch is transmitted through airborne droplets).
    Several people who were undiagnosed but sick continue to come to work and spread it all around the building.
    Some staff members became very ill.

    Off the back of that experience I totally support HR informing staff of highly contagious diseases in the building.
    (And hope never to encounter Whooping Cough again).

  26. Anon246*

    We had this at my office when someone was diagnosed with active TB. We are small enough that everyone knew who it was, simply because that person wasn’t allowed to work until they weren’t contagious, I guess. It was weird.

    1. Raptor*

      TB is actually not that contagious (compared to say, the flu). Most people who get infected never develop TB, but of course, you don’t want to spread diseases like this if you can help it. Those with compromised immune systems, the very young, the very old, smokers, ect seem to be more likely to be infected. Still, considering it’s an airborne illness, it’s really best to stay at home because you’re infecting the air everyone breaths in a closed office space.

      As a side note, you cannot catch TB from touching the person or the person’s things.

      1. Heather*

        It must have been the previous paragraph about air and breathing that made me read your last sentence as “from touching the person or the person’s lungs.” I was wondering what office job you had that made you come into contact with a living person’s lungs.

  27. chewbecca*

    I know this is really late to the game, but I’d like to give the person diagnosed with Hep A a little bit of the benefit of the doubt. Not to say OP shouldn’t take precautions, of course.

    I know if I had been diagnosed with something that contagious, I’d be really careful to do everything I could to not transmit it. Including being extra contentious about thoroughly washing my hands and bringing pre-packaged foods to potlucks (if I participated at all).

    I’m not naive enough to believe everybody would take the same precautions, which is why I definitely think OP should still be extra careful, and is right to be concerned about the risks. It’s always better to be over-prepared than under, unless you’re wearing a HAZMAT suit to your everyday office job. That might be a little too much.

  28. Upset*

    I find myself upset this morning. I was on the phone troubleshooting a software issue. During that time, my boss texted and asked what I was doing. I didn’t see the texts because I was on the phone (we use our cell phones for work) and when I did see them and was finishing up the call, I apologized, said I was on the phone and then said I would get back to this person in a minute. I got told to ‘Go to Hell’ and “Not to bother texting anymore’. I don’t know how to take that. Is so frustrating. This person isn’t like this with others. I can’t fight this – I’d just get told I’m too sensitive and not being professional. But how is being told, ‘Go to hell’ professional? Ugh!

  29. SallyForth*

    I had Hep B and informed my dentist when I went for a visit about a week after the diagnosis. She told me they treat every patient as if they have Hep B. Since then, I just assume most people don’t wash their hands and am careful. However, having Hep B has made me quite anxious about germs from time to time.

    There are a couple of people I’ve worked with who do not follow basic hygiene rules such as coughing into their elbow and when they are sick, my anxiety gives in and I do a complete wipe down of my office and surrounding doorknobs. Surprisingly, despite riding public transit, I rarely get sick.

  30. Pennalynn Lott*

    For the first time in my life, I’m grateful that I got Hep A when I was 12. Bring on the potlucks, I’ve got lifetime immunity!! :-D

Comments are closed.