The government shutdown has slowed or halted federal efforts to protect Americans’ health and safety, from probes into the cause of transportation and workplace accidents to tracking foodborne illness. The latest example: an outbreak of salmonella in chicken that has sickened people in 18 states.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Tuesday that it was recalling some of its furloughed staff to deal with the outbreak, which has sickened more than 270 people. Before then, the CDC had only a handful of scientists working on outbreak detection, severely hampering its ability to track potentially deadly illnesses
With federal workers on leave, the states have had to pick up much of the slack.
In the case of food safety, state labs are investigating foodborne illnesses and communicating with one another — without the help of federal authorities, in many cases — to figure out whether outbreaks have spread.
Dr. Christopher Braden, head of the CDC division that investigates foodborne illness, said the agency will be able to better monitor the salmonella outbreak with the recalled federal staff. But the agency is monitoring more than 30 outbreaks, and gaps still exist as the federal bureaucracy limps through a shutdown beginning its second week.
“There’s a backlog, and the team is going to have to work diligently and long hours to try and overcome that,” Braden said. “It’s possible we may find something we’ve missed, and when that’s the case, it’s harder to start investigations later than earlier.”
With staff furloughed last week, the CDC stopped monitoring for some foodborne pathogens, including shigella and campylobacter. The agency is now watching for those again, but Braden said some investigations are still on the back burner, including an ongoing outbreak of salmonella from handling live poultry that has sickened more than 300.
CDC isn’t the only agency protecting health and safety that’s strained.
Federal occupational safety and health inspectors also have stopped most workplace checks, and the National Transportation Safety Board is only investigating accidents if officials believe lives or property are in danger.
The Food and Drug Administration also has stopped routine inspections of food facilities in the United States and abroad, and border controls could be delayed. Food imports are still being inspected at borders, but any samples that need to be analyzed could be stalled because there are fewer scientists to analyze them.
Still, many federal workers who protect safety and health are still working, from air traffic controllers to airport screeners to the majority of federal law enforcement. Active duty military personnel are on duty. USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service, the agency responsible for investigating the poultry farm in California that is linked to the salmonella outbreak, is also mostly staffed.
But the absence of so-called nonessential workers who are furloughed can have a dangerous ripple effect, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety advocacy at the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest.
She noted that the CDC website has limited information and the USDA website is shut down, preventing concerned members of the public from finding out more information on the salmonella outbreak and other foodborne illnesses. The agencies aren’t tweeting or disseminating health safety information except for a few releases to the media.
“This outbreak is just another example that requiring public health officials to make the choices about who to keep and who to send home can really have huge impacts on not only the individuals involved but on public health and safety,” said Smith DeWaal. “These agencies are always running behind, and the idea that you can just shut them down is just foolish.”