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 food-borne illnesses and communicating with each other — 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 food borne 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 food borne 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. The shutdown has forced the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to halt its regular mine safety inspections, which it normally conducts at each of the nation’s underground mines every three months.
The lack of inspections is coming under scrutiny after three mine workers died in separate accidents on three consecutive days during the past week. The coal mining industry has not had three consecutive days of fatal accidents in more than a decade. MSHA has said it’s premature to draw any conclusions about the link between the shutdown and the accidents, but the nation’s largest mine workers union has raised alarms.
“The government’s watchdog isn’t watching,” United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said. “Safety violations that would normally be caught and corrected as a result of those inspections are being missed. Even the smallest violations, when allowed to accumulate, can lead to dangerous conditions very quickly in a coal mine.”
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.