COVID-19: Health officers find themselves branching out because of pandemic

“We follow up on every complaint we get, and we get multiple complaints,” Fraser Health Authority’s Emily McGuire says

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During this pandemic, healthcare workers have been on the front lines, lauded as heroes but also targeted by anti-vaccine mandate protesters. Postmedia went behind the scenes and spoke with a range of Fraser Health Authority staff for this five-part series to see how they’re coping. Here is part two:

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The tax man, perhaps, was even less welcome, but when health inspectors showed up at restaurants pre-pandemic they weren’t always the most popular people either.

“No, we weren’t,” Emily McGuire said, and she laughed. “I mean, it really depended on the operator. Some operators are great and they really lean on us in that they want to have a clean kitchen.

“But you always have the operators, too, who when we would show up you can just see this look in their eyes.”

That was then; now, things have changed considerably.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the vast majority of restaurateurs have embraced any suggestions for how best to deal with COVID-19 protocols, McGuire, one of the Fraser Health Authority’s environmental health officers, said.

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But, in fact, routine restaurant inspections are mostly on hold for the moment because a lot of Fraser Health’s 70 health officers are on secondment as contact tracers, leaving those remaining to respond mostly to complaints and ensuring compliance in places they never dreamed of.

Places such as mushroom farms, schools, chicken processing plants, even fur farms.

“It was a learning curve and a big pivot for all of us,” McGuire said.

Prior to COVID-19, an officer would administer Health Act legislation, ensuring drinking-water and sewage regulations were being followed, and carrying out inspections of restaurants, tattoo parlours and public swimming pools.

Preferring carrots to sticks, the officers spent a lot of time educating instead of ticketing

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Cases such as Rolly’s Restaurant in Hope, which refused to ask to see diners’ vaccine cards, are outliers, McGuire said.

“We follow up on every complaint we get, and we get multiple complaints.”

A lot of restaurants and pubs just aren’t sure of the proper protocols, she said.

“Maybe they think they’re following properly, but they’re not, and they just need a little bit of guidance. We go in, we talk to the operator and give them education. Most of the places then comply.

“There are a few, unfortunately, that haven’t and that’s when we start into the progressive enforcement role.”

Others who may have been unenthusiastic, if not downright hostile, to COVID guidelines sheepishly come into compliance once they’re called out.

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Generally good news for those who like to dine out, then.

When there is an outbreak, a health officer will visit and basically pretend they’re an employee, not to fool anyone but to learn as much as they can about how that plant or business or farm operates, McGuire said.

That includes how people get to work — do they carpool? Take public transit? Cycle or drive on their own? — when they get to work, where they clock in, where they take their breaks, where they stand on a processing line.

“When we look at that we try to figure out, OK, how’s the virus transmitting here, where are the areas we think it’s happening.”

In a poultry plant, for example, workers are cheek-to-jowl on a production line.

“So we ask them to put in barriers between people, we ask them to phase people out, we’re going to implement these controls to hopefully stop any further transmission of the virus at the work site.”

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Some plants had to bring in trailers or open up other spaces to act as alternate lunchrooms, or shifts had to be staggered so not everyone was taking their break at the same time.

But it was a mink farm McGuire was called out to that stands out in her mind.

Knowledge of how COVID transfers between people and animals is still limited, but according to the federal government, there have been no reports of livestock — cattle, pigs, goats or sheep — getting infected.

Farmed mink, however, can easily catch COVID-19 from an infected human and spread the virus rapidly, lessening what quality of life exists for animals already slated to become someone’s luxury coat.

According to the B.C. SPCA’s latest figures, there are nine mink farms in B.C., almost all of them in the Fraser Valley.

“It surprised me,” McGuire said. “It’s completely out of our wheelhouse in regards to what we are normally doing. And when you think of COVID-19 you think of people getting the virus. I had no idea mink were so vulnerable to COVID.”

You can’t mask minks, obviously, so figuring out how to make mink farms safe for workers, with WorkSafeBC and AgSafe pitching in, was extra challenging.

“We’re kind of used to having to continually learn something new and apply our skills in different ways.”

Coming tomorrow: Part 3, nurses

gordmcintyre@postmedia.com

twitter.com/gordmcintyre

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