ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — Overdoses in the Roanoke Valley have been an ongoing issue since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, but health officials have recently become concerned about the link between drug use and hepatitis A.

According to Michael Cherry, the operations director at BrightView Health in Roanoke, “it’s definitely a growing issue, and it’s growing faster than what we can comprehend.”

He says the BrightView outpatient treatment center opened earlier this year and quickly gained more than 100 active patients.

One thing adding to the growing drug crisis is the lack of people vaccinated against hepatitis A.

The director for infection prevention and control at Carilion Clinic, Dr. Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie, says they’ve been seeing an increase in hepatitis A cases, especially in the drug-using homeless population.

“When certain drug use practices include injecting in an unsanitary sort of way, that increases one’s risk for infections,” said Baffoe-Bonnie.

He says it can also be easily transmitted through food.

“Right from even growing up to when it is packaged, all the way down, especially foods that are not heated, you can have transmission of the virus through it,” Baffoe-Bonnie explained.

As the hepatitis A outbreak continues to spread around the Roanoke Valley, he says those who contract the virus should avoid preparing food for others.

This news comes just a few days after the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts (RCAHD) announced that an employee who was working — but not handling food — at Billy’s Restaurant on Market Street SE in Roanoke between June 20 and July 6 had been infected with hepatitis A.

The Billy’s case marks the third report in less than two months of Roanoke restaurant workers being diagnosed with hepatitis A, including employees at Luigi’s Restaurant and Tuco’s Taqueria Garaje.

In their latest public health update on Tuesday, July 12, health officials announced that 76 cases of hepatitis A — including 55 hospitalizations — had been reported within the RCAHD, which is four more cases than the week before.

Health officials also warn drug users that using needles from other people can contribute to both hepatitis and overdose issues.

“When you’re sharing dirty needles, it definitely can increase your risk of overdoses, definitely other problems,” said Cherry.

Doctors say hepatitis can be very easily prevented by making sure you’re vaccinated.

“The key is if one is vaccinated, that tends to decrease or diminish the risk of even getting the disease at all,” said Baffoe-Bonnie.

According to the doctor says most healthcare providers offer hepatitis vaccinations.

In addition, the RCAHD says free hepatitis A vaccines will be available to the public on a first come, first serve basis from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Tuesday, July 19 at a mobile clinic across the street from the Roanoke City Health Department at 1513 Williamson Road NE.

For more information about hepatitis A, visit the Virginia Department of Health’s website.