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Health Officials Warn I-95 Restaurant Patrons of Exposure to Hepatitis A

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SMITHFIELD, N.C. (AP) — State health officials on Thursday warned Interstate 95 travelers who ate at a popular North Carolina steakhouse earlier this month that they might have been exposed to Hepatitis A.

An employee at The Texas Steakhouse at Exit 95 in Smithfield was recently diagnosed with the virus, which causes nausea, diarrhea, jaundice and fatigue, but no lasting health problems.

As many as 2,000 customers who ate in the restaurant on July 31, Aug. 1-2 and Aug. 7-8 after 3 p.m. could have been exposed, state health officials said. Immune globulin shots are recommended for people who might have been exposed.

"We know that many of these folks may be from the Smithfield/Johnston County area," said Johnston County Health Director L.S. Woodall. "But this restaurant is right off I-95 and close to the popular Carolina Pottery shopping area, and we expect many of the exposed individuals are not even from North Carolina."

The health department administered about 350 shots and received about 300 calls Thursday. Lori Herring was one of the first people to arrive.

"We'd heard there was Hepatitis A at the Texas Steakhouse, and I'm 8 months pregnant, so I wanted to make sure I did what I needed to do," she said.

I-95, the East Coast's major north-south traffic corridor, passes through eastern North Carolina and near Smithfield, about 25 miles southeast of Raleigh.

The county health department received inquiries Thursday from people in Wake, Lenoir, Johnston and Wayne counties, said Debbie Crane, spokeswoman for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.

An immune globulin shot within two weeks of exposure can protect people from the virus, Woodall said. People usually become sick within a month of exposure.

The worker diagnosed with Hepatitis A -- spread when an infected person fails to properly wash his hands -- worked in the kitchen filling glasses with ice, placing rolls on plates and splitting and buttering baked potatoes, Crane said. The man no longer works at the restaurant.

"We are certainly totally committed to absolute health and cleanliness," said Bob Crumly, senior vice president of personnel at Texas Steakhouse headquarters. "This property had outstanding quality grades."

North Carolina is contacting officials up and down the East Coast so they can tell patrons to get the vaccine.

"We've contacted them, and they in turn are going to contact the state health departments in the surrounding states," says County Health Director Dr. L.S. Woodall.

The busy area adjacent to the restaurant is especially crowded in the summertime with travelers stopping to eat or to shop at Carolina Pottery and other outlet stores.

"We're packed everyday," said Mary Morris, the customer service supervisor at Carolina Pottery.

She said many times store employees refer hungry customers to The Texas Steakhouse and another nearby restaurant.

For vaccination information you can call the Johnston County Health Department at(919) 989-5200.

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Brian Bowman, Reporter
Brian Bowman, Photographer

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