It’s not hard to spot Sally Waters when she’s making her rounds as a food inspector. Oak Harbor High School is one of hundreds of food outlets she checks. Photo by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

Public health on the front lines of protection

State may expand county funds to help in public health mission

Sally Waters opens one of many oven doors inside the cafeteria kitchen of Oak Harbor High School, pokes in her food thermometer and checks the temperature. Good and hot.

Check.

She walks around to the self-service section and takes the temperature where milk and salad fixings are stored. Good and cold.

Check.

Clipboard in hand, she consults with kitchen manager Linda Parker and goes over the findings.

Oak Harbor High School passes with flying colors.

It’s just another stop on Waters’ never-ending tour of some 400 restaurants, food vendors, school kitchens, supermarket delis, bakeries and espresso stands Waters inspects twice a year throughout Island County.

Waters is one of many foot soldiers on the front lines of public health, who, like the military, are here to serve and protect, albeit a bit more quietly.

No news is good news when it comes public health, says Island County Health Services Director Keith Higman.

“A lot of the public doesn’t understand what we do,” Higman says. “But people expect food in the restaurants to be safe. People expect they’ll be enough chlorine in the pools where they swim.”

Waters’ job as a food inspector is one of many public health jobs known as essential, meaning its budget and personnel should be maintained in order to carry out the government’s responsibility of keeping people safe.

However, across the state, many public health services have suffered budget cuts over the years and have been historically underfunded.

But a big pot of money — anywhere from $25 million to $40 million — may be added to the state’s health budget this year and funneled to county health departments.

Some $275,000 additional dollars could be added to Island County’s public health budget with the state increase, Higman said.

County commissioners, wanting to know how to most effectively spend any new public health funds, asked Higman to compare Island County with similarly-sized counties in terms of how they fund essential public health services. He examined how counties spend pots of money that come from state, federal and local dollars.

“There is great variability but the bottom line for citizens is, ‘I should have some level of public health no matter where I live,’” he said.

Higman is also making a wish list, looking at what services could be improved to help Island County’s population.

“We have an aging population and we’re not doing anything to focus on that population,” he said. “We need services to support people aging in place.”

Expansion of services for prenatal care education and maternal home visits, improving vaccination rates for school children and programs to help seniors avoid potentially life-threatening falls are some of the areas that could be addressed, Higman said.

Campaigns such as Foundational Public Health Services and Public Health is Essential have been educating lawmakers and others on what happens when public health funding dries up.

Vaccination rates decrease, reports of sexually transmitted diseases increase and water systems become tainted with lead.

None of these occurrences occurred locally, Higman said, but they did elsewhere in the country. And they are always lurking on the horizon of possibility.

As a food inspector, (technically an Environmental Health Specialist III) Waters’ job is protecting people from scary-sounding illnesses like campylobacteriosis, listeriosis, salmonella and e. Coli.

She’s always on the go; Oak Harbor High School one day, Wifire Coffee in Freeland the next.

“We rarely have any issues with foodborne illnesses,” she says, adding she can’t remember the last time there was a report of shellfish possibly being bad despite the tons of mussels, clams and oysters served to locals and tourists.

The public may soon be able to go online and look at the food inspection records of local restaurants and other food outlets, Waters said.

“It’s a service available in other counties and we’re working on getting it here,” she said.

With a food thermometer, Sally Waters checks to make sure both hot and cold foods are kept at proper temperatures. Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

With a food thermometer, Sally Waters checks to make sure both hot and cold foods are kept at proper temperatures. Photos by Patricia Guthrie/Whidbey News-Times

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