Wednesday, March 31, 2021

All hands on deck: Changing roles around COVID Response

This past year brought challenges for everyone, and while it remains to be seen how COVID-19 and its impacts will continue to affect us, many have found themselves taking on new responsibilities. This was definitely true for the WSDA Rapid Response & Emergency Management Program, where the Washington Food/Feed Rapid Response Team (RRT) resides. 

In any year other than 2020-21, the Rapid Response Team earns its keep by coordinating multi-jurisdictional food and animal feed outbreak responses. For example, in the 2018-19 budget period, the team coordinated responses to nine separate incidents including E.coli illnesses associated with raw milk, detections of listeria and salmonella in raw pet food, and severe winter weather impacts on dairy cattle in central Washington. 

A 2019 training event led by
the Rapid Response Team.

In 2020, the Rapid Response Team assisted in coordinating with its food safety partners on 17 incident responses ranging from Listeria in canned fish, campylobacter illnesses associated with undercooked chicken liver, and assisting with tracing efforts on a national leafy green outbreak. These are all typical for our team, but after 2020, we can add infectious disease response to the running list of the program’s capabilities.

Although routine response work continued, we all had to adapt in 2020 to the needs brought on by the global pandemic, and Washington RRT was no different. 

One of the great opportunities of having a food/feed Rapid Response Team as part of WSDA’s Emergency Management Program is that each side brings its own extensive network of subject matter experts.

These networks overlapped in many ways when tasked with solving, or helping others solve, the various challenges that came with sharing COVID-19 public health guidance, obtaining and distributing personal protective equipment, tracking federal guidance and requirements, and educating and advising others on the state’s vaccine roll-out plan. 

For example, the same emergency managers we typically work with on radiation emergency preparedness or Incident Command System training became involved last year in helping with the statewide COVID-19 response. Despite different roles, we all knew how to reach each other and tap into one another’s resource network to share best practices, learn what had already been done, and coordinate our efforts. 

Knowing who to contact in food safety programs of other states through the national Rapid Response Team network helped expedite COVID-19 guidance for the food processing industry. Having all of these networks already established sped the agency’s public health response.

The Rapid Response Team was also able to help provide more tangible solutions, such as assisting the WSDA Food Safety Program purchase handheld radios so food safety inspectors could continue important inspections and investigations while maintaining social distance measures and following current statewide requirements.

Washington National Guard
helping at a food pantry.
Additionally, the program represents WSDA during all statewide responses where agricultural and natural resources are impacted.  We call this Emergency Support Function 11, or ESF 11, and we’ve been activated for over 13 months through the State Emergency Operations Center.  Add this ESF-11 piece to the program and you get a well-rounded balance of in the trenches work and big-picture coordination. 

The past year gave us the opportunity to work closely with others in the agency to coordinate National Guard placement in food banks, assist with face covering and hand sanitizer distribution to farm workers and food processors, and share expertise in food safety and quality considerations related to stockpiled food to supplement the state’s hunger relief network. 

The work needed to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak illustrated that programs with rapid response teams can not only be boots on the ground, but also effective at coordinating the flow of information and act as key facilitators for an effective public health response.

COVID-19 brought challenges, suffering, and heartache to many, but it provided the opportunity to identify what worked well in our response, and what could be improved. 

While COVID-19 changed a lot of things, the networks of dedicated public health and emergency management professionals continued to work effectively. The interlacing prompted by the challenges of this last year have only made these networks stronger.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Think twice before giving bunnies or chicks as gifts

Dr. Susan Kerr
WSDA Animal Health Program

Although it may be tempting to gift a small child with a fuzzy baby rabbit or chick on a glorious spring day or as an Easter gift in a basket, giving such animals as gifts should only be done after careful consideration for the health of the children and the well-being of the animal.

Rabbits and poultry carry a significant health risk for children and many new owners find themselves unprepared for the reality of raising a rabbit, hen, or rooster.

It is common for a child to nuzzle or even kiss a baby chick. However, poultry can carry Salmonella bacteria on or in their bodies, and some types of this bacteria can make people very ill.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported an increase in salmonella cases associated with the increase in backyard poultry raising in response to COVID-19 pandemic food security issues.

Proper handwashing will go a long way to keeping yourself and your child safe, but small children are notoriously lax about handwashing; they put things in their mouths, have close contact with the ground, and sometimes interact very closely with animals. All these actions put children at greater risk of Salmonellosis, which can cause severe diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, and serious complications.

Another concern about gifting a chick is what becomes of the chick as it grows. Will you be prepared for a laying hen that can live 10 or more years, or a rooster who will let the neighborhood know when it is 5 a.m.?

Dumping birds somewhere after a child has lost interest is illegal, unethical, and cruel.

The same concern holds true for rabbits, also often given as a gift.

Once interest in the bunny wanes, many rabbits are dumped in parks or other remote areas. This is a tragedy on two fronts. First, freed domestic rabbits are not prepared for life in the wild and usually succumb to starvation or predators. Second, surviving rabbits wreak havoc on ecosystems by competing with native rabbit species, destroying desirable plants, and reproducing at alarming rates.

To make matters worse, in recent years a serious rabbit disease has been spreading more widely in the Washington and the U.S. – Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease, or RHD. This virus is highly contagious among the European rabbits most commonly sold, and releasing them into the wild increases the risk of the disease spreading into native wild rabbits.

If, despite your best efforts and intentions, you are no longer able to care for any type of pet, it should be taken to an appropriate animal shelter and never set loose in the wild.

Bringing an animal of any kind into a household is a serious decision. Considerations include how to feed, house, and care for the animal for the duration of its life - which can be years – in order to keep both people and pets safe

If you are not prepared for such a commitment, consider sticking to a stuffed animal—there is no feeding or waste to worry about, and you can always throw them in the washer!