Costco customer upset after company refuses promised hep A booster shot

A Costco customer says the company has not kept its promise to offer free booster shots for hepatitis A to people who were potentially exposed to the virus through frozen berries bought at the store earlier this year.

Costco Canada offered free hepatitis A shots in April to customers affected by frozen berry recall

The Canada Food Inspection Agency issued a recall for Nature's Touch Organic Cherry Berry Blend frozen berries in April. Costco offered customers who bought the berries free hepatitis A vaccine, but is now telling them it will not provide a booster shot. (Canadian Food Inspection Agency)

A Costco customer says the company has not kept its promise to offer free booster shots for hepatitis A to people who were potentially exposed to the virus through frozen berries bought at the store earlier this year. 

In April, Costco announced it was providing free vaccines to anyone who bought, and possibly consumed, Nature's Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend frozen berries, after more than a dozen cases of hepatitis A in several provinces were linked to the product, including 10 cases in Ontario. 

At the time, Costco told CBC News it would offer free booster shots in six months to all affected customers.

That was also the message given to customers who went to some Ontario Costco pharmacies in April for the initial shot, but the company is now reneging on that promise, according to a Toronto man who contacted CBC News.

Customer told booster was necessary

Dan O'Reilly said he and his wife got their first shots in April at a Costco in Newmarket, Ont., after they were notified by the company they had bought the frozen berries.
Dan O'Reilly and his wife received the hepatitis A vaccination after consuming the recalled berries, but were told they would not be given the promised booster shot when they contacted Costco six months later. (Submitted)

"The pharmacist who gave us the shot emphasized, I think more than once during the session, that it was very important that we come back for the second shot which would be provided free of charge by Costco," said O'Reilly.

"There was absolutely no ambiguity about this."

O'Reilly said he and his wife felt "tremendous" anxiety at the time because they know for certain they consumed the recalled berries, so he made a point of jotting down the six-month mark in his calendar. 

There was absolutely no ambiguity about this.- Dan O'Reilly

But O'Reilly said when he contacted the same Costco on Thursday, he was told by the pharmacist that Costco had only committed to providing the first shot. 

"The pharmacist … started going on about their commitment was just to provide … the first shot, and that the full vaccine was really not their responsibility, and on, and on, and on. And we're going, 'Wait a minute, you committed to providing two shots, which is the full vaccine,' and the pharmacist basically said, 'Well that's not what we've been told.'"

Is a booster required for hep A?

The hepatitis A infection is rarely fatal, but it can cause debilitating symptoms and acute liver failure if not treated, according to the World Health Organization.

O'Reilly said he was left feeling confused about whether or not a booster shot is in fact required to protect against hepatitis A.

A single dose of the vaccine "usually provides good protection" and a single dose is "appropriate post-exposure protection against a known exposure event," Ottawa Public Health said in a statement to CBC News.

"But to ensure protection against future exposures (for example, because of travel to a high risk area) over many years, it is best to get a second dose six months or more following the initial dose." 

Costco's response 'doesn't seem right'

Hepatitis A vaccines are not funded by OHIP, except to individuals who are considered high risk, such as people with liver disease, men who have sex with other men, and intravenous drug users, according to Ottawa Public Health.

Still, O'Reilly said "it doesn't seem right" that Costco promised something to its customers that it now says it won't deliver.

"The original message was very clear … and anybody who had planned on that is obviously now being put in a position where they have to fall on their own resources to complete a process that they were told wasn't discretionary, you had to go get it," said O'Reilly.

A Costco Canada spokesman confirmed to CBC News that the company did in fact tell customers in April that boosters would be necessary, and would be provided for free.

Reversal based on health agency guidelines

But after the Public Health Agency of Canada issued new guidelines indicating the booster shots are not necessary, Costco reversed its decision to provide them, Ron Damiani said.

In the days immediately after the recall Costco was working with "all kinds of sources," including healthcare units throughout Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes," Damiani said.

"At the time that we did it, we were told to tell people that a booster shot would be required in six months," said Damiani.

Damiani said customers who still want a booster will have to make arrangements through their own health-care providers.