The COVID-19 global outbreak is hitting local health departments hard with some having to cut inspections of restaurants and other retail food establishments, according to new data from a national organization representing more than 3,000 local governments.

Staffing issues caused by responses to the pandemic have stripped bare the bones of city and county health departments across the United States, according to a report from the National Association of County and City Officials (NACCHO).

“. . .existing services are strained or paused, with health impacts that will ripple through communities,” according to a statement from NACCHO. 

“Food safety programs are no exception, with program impacts related to staff being pulled to the COVID-19 response and reduced services to comply with social distancing requirements. Despite retail food establishments being deemed as an essential business during the COVID-19 pandemic, many localities have greatly reduced or ceased their food safety program operations.”

Even before the virus hit, city and county health departments were already facing staff cuts and limited budgets, according to NACCHO. From 2008 to 2016, local health departments experienced a decline of more than 2,000 environmental health full-time employee equivalents.

Food safety programs responding to COVID-19 have reported that they have been experiencing varying levels of impact from the coronavirus outbreak. Local officials report a variety of effects, but especially to their routine operations, ranging from minimal impact to entire food safety programs being shut down, or large portions of staff being reassigned to COVID-19 response.

Specifically, local officials reported reduced or suspended routine inspections at food retailers, citing COVID-19 reassignment, social distancing practices, and a lack of personal protective equipment as reasons for the actions.

Training for foodservice workers and other food safety classes are also on pause in many places because of social distancing guidelines and a lack of staff, according to the NACCHO data report.

To meet the food safety program challenges created by COVID-19, NACCHO reports that local health departments are taking a number of measures, including:

  • Conducting virtual inspections instead of on-site inspections for complaint investigations and pre-reopening of facilities.
  • Engaging and assisting restaurant operators to do more active managerial control to empower them to manage their own food safety.
  • Providing guidance on food safety operations through the phone or virtually.
  • For programs that ceased routine inspections, staff that have not been re-assigned to COVID-19 are improving their food safety program by working to conform to the FDA Voluntary National Retail Food Regulatory Program Standards.

The full NACCHO report, including a list of resources to assist food safety programs during the COVID-19 response, can be found here.

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