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State Rep. Toby Overdorf wants to draft bill to improve public notification of health threats

State Rep. Toby Overdorf
Posted at 4:21 AM, Jun 18, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-18 11:17:05-04

MARTIN COUNTY, Fla. - A local lawmaker is leading the charge to get you more information faster if there is ever another health threat, like hepatitis A, in your community.

State Rep. Toby Overdorf, who represents areas of Martin and St. Lucie counties, feels more could have be done to keep people in the know as hepatitis A cases climbed in our area.

RELATED: Another 99 hepatitis A cases added last week in Florida | Notifying the public about Martin County hepatitis A outbreak: What’s the process?

Instead of hearing information from the health department, Overdorf said more often the community was getting information first from the press or local leaders.

Now, he wants to create a bill to make the Florida Department of Health act faster and provide more information if the public is facing a health risk.

Overdorf says he reacted to the rising hepatitis A numbers in Martin County and St. Lucie County just like many of the people who he represents.

“Well, I was shocked. Here’s a completely preventable disease that is now running rampant through our small county,” Overdorf said.

He says he was just as shocked about the struggle he faced to get more information about where the virus was spreading and who was getting sick.

In a news conference in April, the Florida Department of Health in Martin County said the county became a "high risk" area for the hepatitis A virus on April 1.

A spokesperson for the health department said on April 2, the "high risk" population was notified, by notifying the Martin County Sheriff’s Office and local county leaders. A spokesperson for the health department said the "high risk" population included the homeless, inmates and intravenous drug users.

Of the 22 confirmed cases this year, only a couple of the cases in Martin County were diagnosed from people who fit the "high risk" criteria.

A news conference to notify the rest of the public wasn’t scheduled until April 5. WPTV was the first to report the "high risk" designation and two deaths from hepatitis A a day before the health department revealed the information in a news conference.

“It seems as sometimes we were sharing more information with the public than what the health department was,” Overdorf said.

Following word of the virus outbreak, Overdorf said he and other state lawmakers met with state health officials in what he described as a positive discussion in Tallahassee.

“We asked for coordination. We asked to go back and forth on this and we didn’t get it,” Overdorf said.

Now, he hopes to have a bill to present during the next legislative session that would focus on public notification.

“Once we hit crisis mode, what is that response? I think that’s really where the disconnect has been ... We’re really looking at in times of crisis, how do our state agencies perform? How do they get the information out there? And how do they serve the public? That’s what they’re there to do,” said Overdorf.

This would not only apply to hepatitis A, but any other health risk.

"Whether it’s with the city of Stuart water supply, or dealing with the algae issues we’ve had. I think as a state agency we can really look at how do we respond to the public,” said Overdorf.

WPTV has requested policies regarding the public notification process from the Florida Department of Health. We are still waiting for a response.