A deadly hepatitis A outbreak in San Diego County has residents on edge.
Since last November, at least 17 people have died and nearly 300 others have been sent to the hospital in what public health officials are calling the deadliest outbreak of the disease in the U.S. in decades.
According to Dr. Nick Yphantides, San Diego County’s chief medical officer, 15 of the 17 people who died were homeless and/or illicit drug users. The virus is spread through fecal matter and through person‐to‐person contact. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported that San Diego-related hepatitis A cases have popped up in Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, and Imperial County.
While local health officials have taken steps to combat the infectious disease, the outbreak has raised questions about how city and county leaders initially responded to the public health threat. Some homeless advocates say the crisis can be linked to the government’s failure to address an increasing homelessness problem. Local officials have denied dragging their feet in response to the outbreak and point to the difficulty of getting homeless people to accept vaccination and treatment.
Beyond the political finger-pointing, the outbreak has called into question California’s ban on single-use plastic bags. But in November, California voters approved Proposition 67, a statewide ban that went into effect immediately after the election. That’s when the first rash of hepatitis A cases was reported.
Some critics argue the bag ban made the crisis in San Diego worse by taking away a practicable alternative to using a public restroom. Even Dr. Wilma Wooten, public health officer and director of public health services for the County of San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency, acknowledged the importance of plastic bags for the local homeless population, telling the San Diego Reader:
Yes, absolutely, we know people use the bags for that. We know people don’t have bathrooms and they can put bags in cans and buckets and maintain good hygiene. That’s why we put plastic bags in the hygiene kits we’re handing out. That’s what we expect people will use them for.
Bob McElroy, president and CEO of Alpha Project, a leading nonprofit that operates several programs serving the homeless in San Diego, told the San Diego Union-Tribune he has noticed an increase in the demand for plastic bags over the past year. Public health officials and local nonprofits have distributed thousands of hygiene kits that include, among other essential items, plastic bags.
This is not the first time that a law restricting the use of plastic bags has been linked to a public health problem. Studies have shown that reusable bags, if not properly washed, can play a role in the cross-contamination of foods, which can cause food poisoning. In 2010, a reusable grocery bag was blamed for a norovirus outbreak that sickened nine members of a girls’ soccer team in Oregon.
While it’s unclear whether the plastic bag ban played a prominent role in the San Diego outbreak, policymakers—and voters—in other states should carefully consider the unintended consequences of plastic bag bans and other seemingly benign laws. They may end up doing more harm than good.
Ben Smithwick is Director of Development for the Pacific Research Institute. Prior to joining PRI, he worked at Fox News Channel’s Los Angeles bureau and for the Santa Barbara News-Press.