At the start of the government shutdown, Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told CBS News: “If there’s an outbreak of food-borne illness that affects people in multiple states, we may not identify it promptly.” He was even more blunt on Twitter, announcing on Oct. 1, “We are less safe.”
Well, there’s now an outbreak of food-borne illness that’s affecting people in 18 states: 278 reported illnesses, mostly in California, have been linked to salmonella in raw chicken produced by a company called Foster Farms, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced on Monday. (The USDA’s food inspectors, like air traffic controllers, keep working through the shutdown.) Foster Farms says it’s working with government agencies to reduce the incidence of salmonella and that no recall has been issued.
The CDC monitors outbreaks that cross state lines and does the lab work to determine whether disparate cases are linked to the same source of disease, which could signal a wider public health danger, as Wired reports. The agency’s staff that tracks food-borne illness is returning to work, according to a CBS News report. It’s not clear how employees initially deemed non-essential could be called back to work. (My e-mail to an agency spokeswoman wasn’t returned Tuesday afternoon.)
The agency has to walk a fine line between sustaining its essential functions to protect people while making clear to the public how damaging the shutdown is. Its weekly flu updates are a good example. The early days of flu season are upon us, yet the CDC’s updates have gone dark because of the shutdown. “Support for outbreak investigations and response to public queries regarding influenza circulation and prevention will be limited during this time,” according to a notice posted on the CDC’s flu Web page Tuesday afternoon.
While the country waits for Congress to turn the lights back on, the CDC’s website remains full of useful public health information, like how to avoid getting salmonella infections, where to get a flu vaccine, and how to prepare for zombies. That last one might come in handy if you’re near Capitol Hill.