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EH Heroes in the time of COVID-19: M.L. Tanner

May 29, 2020

NEHA member, M.L. Tanner is a Program Coordinator for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. Tanner works in the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program coordinating case management activities between Health Department nurses and EH Managers to assure appropriate follow-up for children with confirmed elevated blood lead levels. She is also a NEHA Technical Advisor in the area of Children's Environmental Health. In her interview, Tanner discusses what work-life looks like since the onset of COVID-19. As EH professionals strive to meet the health and safety needs of South Carolina communities they have relied on virtual options to carry out essential day-to-day work. We reached out to Tanner to get her personal perspective on being an EH professional during the COVID-19 crisis. The opinions expressed here are her own and not intended to be an official response from S.C. Department of Health. Thank you M.L. for sharing your experience and point of view with NEHA.

How has your work changed since the outbreak of COVID-19 in South Carolina?

Most of our work has transitioned from face-to-face contact with individuals to a virtual or social distancing concept. Many of our in-person retail food establishment inspections have been halted. We have contacted these establishments and provided compliance assistance, based on their change in operations. Many have gone from serving meals inside to only doing take-out, which they have traditionally not done. Many have questions on how that can be achieved successfully while still working within their specific limitations. Facilities that wish to have an inspection have been achieved through video conferencing along with dialogue in how the establishment is preparing, handling, and sanitizing throughout their process.

Hazardous waste and solid waste inspections have been temporarily suspended, along with underground storage tank and air inspections.

Rabies investigations have adapted to allow for owners of pets involved in bite cases to use video calls to prove the animal's health. Quarantine notices have been provided through email to owners. Investigations have transitioned away from in-person contact to virtual, through emails, phone conversations, and video conferencing. It has required more coordination with staff working from home and staff in the office on the input and processing of reports.

Ambient stream monitoring has continued to collect water samples. There is typically minimal contact with any outside persons in performing these functions. Drinking water samples have continued, with contacting individuals at sample locations and ensuring that social distancing measures are in place when those samples are collected.

In our Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, our Public Health Nurses are making contact by telephone to being case management. Home visits by our certified Lead Risk Assessors for environmental assessments are being deferred.

Many staff members that are telecommuting are getting a lot of online training accomplished while inspections have been pared back temporarily.

As most states begin mapping out plans to ease social distancing and isolation restrictions how will the work of environmental health professionals change?

Many facilities that we inspect have implemented their own protocols to ensure the safety and wellness of their employees. In setting up opportunities to inspect these facilities, coordination is key to ensure we meet their requirements while at the same time meeting our agency's protocols.

Coordination with facilities before performing inspections will be key, whereas in the past many of our inspections were unannounced and done without the facility knowing when we would conduct an inspection.

Open communication with the public on our role and what we can enforce will also be key. In South Carolina, many of the executive orders that have been implemented by our Governor, concerning social distancing and limited numbers of customers/occupants, are not enforceable under our current regulations. We do not enforce whether or not restaurants allow patrons to dine-in. With pool season starting, recommendations on limiting numbers of persons in a pool area have been established by CDC, which again we do not regulate or enforce.

There will likely be some degree of trial and error involved in the process. We will need to be flexible, as our profession always is, as we move from working remotely back to our offices and into the field.

What can NEHA, and other professional associations, do to help EH professionals during this crisis?

Help provide forums and articles on what other states are doing that work or don't work. Just because they may or may not work for some states doesn't mean that it might not be an option for others. I know our state has looked at what other states are proposing as protocols to start back with inspections that have been temporarily suspended during this time.

The strain of this pandemic has been felt acutely by those who are essential workers (environmental and public health professionals included). What advice would you give to EH professionals who are working under such stressful conditions?

First and foremost, be kind to yourself and those around you. Take care of your health – physical, mental, and emotional. Keep yourself and your family protected as much as possible. It is hard to do your job when you are worried about the health and wellness of your family.

Be considerate of what others are going through. Many smaller facilities and operations, as well as some larger ones, are dealing with workforce layoffs, income reductions/loss of income, and order reductions. With these stressors, they are operating day-to-day and are doing their best to stay open and operating. Provide compliance assistance where needed, but we also have an obligation to protect the environment and our citizens from any harmful effects.

As each day comes to an end, sit quietly for a moment and think of 3 things for which you are grateful.