Hepatitis in them canyons

“I would never allow volunteers to do this type of cleaning.”

An open-air toilet in a City Heights canyon
  • An open-air toilet in a City Heights canyon

“I got my [hepatitis A] shot at Kaiser last Friday [September 1],” Linda Pennington said. “My arm was incredibly sore for about ten minutes from my bicep to my wrist.” She said that a day after her shot she also got a fever, a headache, felt dizziness and tired, and lost her appetite (though she said she didn't want to discourage anyone from getting vaccinated).

On September 5, the county updated the numbers regarding the hepatitis A outbreak: 15 people have died — of the 398 reported cases that had hepatitis A in San Diego — since the beginning of the year.

Pennington, 68, took heed of the notice a week before, when there were about 370 reported cases.

“The vaccination would be a precaution for those of us who work in the canyons, creeks [and streets] who could have gotten pathogens on our boots, gloves, grabbers, and other tools,” Pennington said. “We wash gloves after every event, but we don’t typically decontaminate our boots and tools every day.”

The county posted on their website that “This disease is a highly contagious liver infection that is spread when a person ingests food or water that has been contaminated by the feces of an infected person (i.e., touching objects or eating food that someone with Hepatitis A handled).”

Pennington is exposed to human feces more often than the average San Diegan. She works for San Diego Canyonlands as the City Heights community organizer. She led the recent cleanup of about 19 metric tons of trash and nonnative plants at Manzanita Canyon and its surroundings. Part of the cleanup was human feces left by the homeless population.

“I would never allow volunteers to do this type of cleaning,” Pennington said. “Eric Bowlby, the executive director of San Diego Canyonlands, doesn’t even want our crew to do this kind of cleaning. If I have a big group cleaning, I will go early and make sure they don’t encounter anything. [The volunteers] are told to stay out of any area where they see toilet paper and poo.”

According to the county website, the majority of people who have contracted hepatitis A are homeless and/or illicit drug users, although some cases have been neither. Besides contact with feces, the virus is also being spread person-to-person.

In 2015, Pennington cleaned up a massive “open air toilet” (as she called it) by Fairmount Avenue and 43rd Street. “I had asked the city to clean it up, as it is on [the city’s] property,” she said, “but the intake person said they would not do that — so I carefully cleaned it up myself as a volunteer with a shovel and a bag-lined five-gallon bucket.”

On September 5, Urban Corps employees were witnessed picking up trash and pressure-washing University and Adams avenues’ streets and sidewalks. “We got our shots,” said one of the supervisors who has been “cleaning the streets for four years, but sometimes we have to protect ourselves with gloves and goggles because of the [human] poop.”

Jeannie, 69, lives in City Heights. Like Pennington, she helps with the cleanup efforts in her neighborhood. “When we cleaned up the homeless camp [two weeks ago], we were dealing with human waste, and one man [helping] threw up a couple of times. I wore gloves and heavy motorcycle boots.” She said she is scheduled to get a hep A shot on September 12. “I will explain all of this to my [doctor] when I have my physical.”

Pennington said that Kaiser patients don’t need an appointment for immunizations. “Just go to the nurses’ station from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.,” she said. “And you get a second shot in six months.”

For people who don’t have insurance, the county website posted locations that offer the hepatitis A and B shots, among other vaccinations, on a first-come, first-served basis.

On the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, it states that symptoms will usually appear two to six weeks after the person gets the virus and may include the following: fever, loss of appetite, fatigue, stomach pain, vomiting, dark urine, and yellow skin and eyes.

A couple days after Pennington’s shot, her fever had subsided to 100.5° and she was able to email this reporter with an update. “I rarely get sick,” she said, “so this is really annoying [because] I have so many things to do.”

On the 16th, she will facilitate 11 City Heights sites plus captain her own team for Coastal Cleanup Day.

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