Philadelphia will join a growing group of major American cities that require customers to prove they have had the hepatitis A virus vaccine before being allowed in food service establishments, starting in January 2020.
Mayor Jim Kenney and other health leaders said Friday that they crafted the new mandate based on two decades of research demonstrating that residents living in “high-risk” areas, which the city defined as several boroughs in northern Philadelphia, are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
Hepatitis A is typically spread through fecal-oral contact, and people living in high-risk areas typically contract it through food-service businesses. In the last year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported three outbreaks across the country, including one in Texas. None have been in Philadelphia.
“This doesn’t mean we are going to go ahead and be concerned about food safety because we know what it means for our cities,” Kenney said during a media briefing at Washington and Lee University, where medical students and community leaders lent support for the effort. “This is about protecting the health of our residents in the most vulnerable populations that fall under the canopy of the high-risk area.”
The new rule will be in effect for all Philadelphia food services, including restaurants, events and takeout. However, people who already have received the vaccine will not be required to get another dose.
More than 26,000 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with hepatitis A since the summer of 2016, according to the CDC. The majority of the cases have been in people who had not been vaccinated because of religious or ethical reasons, which is one of the reasons why city leaders needed to draft a new way of vaccinating individuals in high-risk areas.
A set of guidelines for restaurant kitchens, meanwhile, has been drawn up, but restaurant owners may not see any changes for at least two years. Those guidelines suggest setting a safe food handling temperature to begin boiling fresh foods at 165 degrees Fahrenheit and ensure ice and water supply lines for employees is monitored.
In addition to the two-dose policy for restaurant workers, the city will also require drug-free restaurants to use updated technology to keep customers safe. Restaurants will also be required to hire additional employees with food handling skills to help work with diners.
Delaware city officials have passed a similar policy in recent years, but that policy will only take effect in 2020, at the earliest.