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.