EH Heroes in the time of COVID-19: Traci Michelson
April 8, 2020
In the coming months, we will dedicate the Day in the Life of an EH Professional Blog to stories of our members responding to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic from the frontlines. Now more than ever, the often unseen work of environmental health professionals is a linchpin to keeping our communities safe, healthy, and informed. Our aim is to shine a light on this essential work through the stories of NEHA members.
Our first contributor to this series is Traci Michelson, MS, REHS, CP-FS. Traci has been a NEHA member for almost 20 years. She serves on the Board of Directors for the NEHA Business and Industry Affiliate and will soon take a spot on the NEHA Board of Directors as Region 5 Vice President. Traci is a Senior Manager of Food Safety and Quality Assurance for Brinker International, one of the country's leading casual dining restaurant companies.
In her interview, Traci details the steps that her food safety and quality assurance team has undertaken to keep customers and staff safe during this time. She discusses how the private and public sectors can work together and offers this advice, "This is the time to lean into each other for knowledge, insight, and alignment on what matters most to us – keeping people safe and healthy."
How has Brinker International been responding to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis?
We initially set up a COVID-19 crisis team in early March to start addressing the concerns our teams were expressing around coronavirus. The team quickly reacted to set up internal resource websites – one for Operations and one for the Restaurant Support Center (RSC) staff. We also created multiple email hotlines (inquiries/requests/reports) – one for coronavirus and one for team member relations.
So far we have implemented the following COVID-19 mitigation strategies:
- All RSC staff working from home that can
- All restaurants have gone to ToGo/delivery only
- Implemented social distancing inside and outside restaurants
- Enhanced our sanitation/disinfection protocols
- Ensured constant focus on proper handwashing and glove usage
- Ensured strict enforcement of strict illness policies
- Implemented contactless curbside options
What does an average day look like for you and your team since the onset of COVID-19?
The team provides ongoing food safety and quality assurance support 7 days per week from 7 am to 10 pm. We are part of the coronavirus hotline so we field many inquires and decisions around COVID-19 illness and exclusion questions. We work with the crisis team to research and develop policies and procedures around operational initiatives and changes (i.e. work safe plans, face mask use, and health/wellness checks).
We also provide support to our supply chain partners and our operations and culinary teams. In these capacities, we help to identify needs and resources – sanitizer, disinfectant, thermometers, face coverings, and towels – and to determine the viability of different food and beverage options and strategies – alcoholic beverage options, possible meal kits, and food waste mitigation.
In addition, we continue to provide our usual support on routine crisis issues – water issues, boil water advisories, health department inquiries, equipment, and power outages.
What advice or success stories can you share with other food safety professionals working to keep communities safe during this time?
Be nimble and bold – this is a difficult time for most businesses and people. To survive and provide our communities with what they want and need you need to be able to adjust business focus, strategy, and practices to keep yourself viable and safe. Explore all your options and don't be afraid to try something on a small scale to determine if it will work, then don't be afraid to let go if something doesn't work. We were able to pivot to ToGo/delivery quickly as those mandates rolled out and it is helping our business to remain viable in this volatile environment. We've continued to add value options like free delivery, free appetizers, and alcohol sales as we determine their fit within our business model.
Communicate, communicate, communicate – there is so much information and news out there, some good and some not so good. Provide links to reliable resources that your team can use. Talk to them about what you are thinking about doing, get feedback from those on the front line. Ensure everyone understands the expectations and how to execute on all new processes and procedures. Do everything in your power to keep them safe and healthy. Setting up our hotlines made a huge difference in being able to quickly and confidently communicate with our teams and answer any questions they may have. We are posting all our temporary COVID-19 related resources on our internal website to ensure everyone has access to them 24/7.
What are some ways that the environmental health private and public sectors can collaborate and establish partnerships during this time?
With over 3,000 regulatory jurisdictions in the United States, any public sector agencies that can pass along updates and information about area-specific recommendations and mandates would be greatly appreciated. As a national company, it is a challenge to identify and track where health/safety measures are different from the CDC leadership. If there is special documentation that is required to operate, and if there are community concerns that we should be taking into account when running our restaurants, then we are relying on guidance from local public health departments.
It would be great to collaborate on safety measures and supply challenges (thermometers, hand sanitizer, face masks, etc.) to determine our best options and what is achievable in adverse situations such as lack of supplies. We should also provide each other with professional and emotional support. We are all living the same crisis, facing the same challenges and addressing the same problems. This is the time to lean into each other for knowledge, insight, and alignment on what matters most to us – keeping people safe and healthy.
What can NEHA, and other professional associations, do to help EH professionals during this crisis?
- Provide a resource and vehicle for networking and collaboration amongst all EH professionals.
- Continue to advocate for the needed resources to address this type of crisis.
- Provide outreach to EH professionals that don't have sufficient access to needed crisis resources.
- Provide a reliable and trusted source of information and guidance that everyone can lean into.