DOH Food Safety Branch suspends in-person inspections until staff is vaccinated

Coronavirus

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The Department of Health’s Food Safety Branch manager on Oahu decided to halt in-person food establishment inspections and complaints until his 21 staff members are vaccinated.

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The division inspects restaurants, hospitals, care homes, and educational facilities to name a few.

“It’s very difficult to have them constantly being exposed to all these new variants,” explained Food Safety Branch manager Peter Oshiro, who has been asking health officials to have his team vaccinated since January 8.

His team of inspectors falls under the essential frontline workers category which is the 1B group to receive the vaccine. He said despite pleading with higher-ups and proving how at-risk his employees are compared to other state officials who have been vaccinated or are on the list to receive their first dose, his team still isn’t on the list.

“The virus is out there not being well controlled,” Oshiro said. “Yet my staff who are very high contact, very high-risk on a daily basis deals with the highest demographic of people that are infected in the nation, which are service industry workers and back of the house people, they have the highest risk of infection.”

The Department of Health has identified several COVID-19 clusters and outbreaks at restaurants across Oahu in the last several months.

He said they are one of the few agencies that investigates complaints from the general public and disease outbreak control division from people not wearing masks to people not socially distanced.

“We have outbreaks in a restaurant,” Oshiro said. “They want us to address these things, and we have no vaccination. We’re not even on the list yet. My staff stands toe-to-toe with them on a daily basis to explain to them rules and regulations. We have to be there to tell them how to manage their facility to prevent other people from getting sick.”

Oshiro said each member of his team does up to 50 inspections per month, multiply the number of inspectors he has, and he said his team alone comes into contact with about 1,000 un-screened people monthly.

He explained restaurants in Hawaii are designed to maximize space and square footage which makes it hard for employees to distance themselves from one another.

So, there’s no fast-food restaurant that can meet the six-foot requirement, it’s just impossible. These businesses are all designed for the employees to stand literally shoulder to shoulder to maximize space and efficiency. We have to stick our heads in there to do a routine inspection with all these people. We have no clue as to their family life or their social life.

Peter Oshiro
Department of Health’s Food Safety Branch manager

“That’s the most disappointing part,” he continued. “If people are screened before we go in there. If we can restrict who can operate a restaurant with all kind of questionnaires and regulations, it would be a lot safer. We go off on complaints. Our own disease outbreaks control people tell us there’s problems here with COVID-19, please go out there and check it out. Bring this to light so the public is safe.”

Since July 2020, his team has been asked to follow up on complaints and make sure food establishments abide by COVID-19 guidance.  

“It was something that was asked of us early on,” he said of when former health director Dr. Bruce Anderson was in charge. “When this outbreak first came about as to who’s going to enforce all these things in the restaurants, so many of the rules and regulations are focused around restaurants and liquor dispensers. So that was the big question. But again, our government failed to plan. They failed that vision, so we got in very late in the game after the rules and regulations were already made. We never had a chance to communicate with the industry what our intentions were. We were just ordered from above to do these things.”

So again, we are now enforcing. We’re the only ones supposed to go in a restaurant. I mean, we own their permits. We regulate them on the daily basis. Our restaurant industry has been fabulous, as far as voluntary compliance, those with our packeting program. But it’s the five to 10% of the bad apples that are out there that sort of challenge us, and I can’t keep putting my staff out there in front of those kind of people that are just absolutely belligerent and screaming, about their masks with their masks off.”

Peter Oshiro
Department of Health’s Food Safety Branch manager

He pointed out one particular incident that occurred a week and a half ago when the owner refused to wear a mask.

“This owner literally doesn’t care,” Oshiro added.  “He told my staff he doesn’t care. He taunts my staff by removing and putting the mask on and off just to bully them. My staff has had enough of that already.”

“So basically, as of today, we’re not going to go out into the field, unless we have some kind of major outbreak going on that we have to investigate,” he said on Monday. “If it’s just for routine complaints about mask wearing, or routine inspection, I can’t see facing my staff at any more risk because the health department refuses to vaccinate us.”

He said four or five of his staff had to be tested for COVID-19 after they thought they came into contact with positive employees they were investigating.

“This is really serious stuff,” Oshiro said. “This is like one fourth of my staff that had actually panicked and got tested, because we got messages from our own disease outbreak control that they were in a facility with positive people after the fact.”

He said it’s a difficult decision to make, but doesn’t understand how the disease outbreak division could tell his team to enter several COVID-19 hot zones without a COVID-19 vaccination.

“Everything will be done by phone until my staff gets vaccinated, or until I’m ready to do otherwise,” Oshiro said. “If there’s an outbreak where people are literally getting sick, we’ve always held that up as the highest priority. We will not short that responsibility, but if these are routine complaints and routine inspections then no. My staff should not be putting themselves at risk at this point.”

The Department of Health said in a statement:

The Department of Health is grateful to the countless government and private sector workers who continue to do their jobs safely while patiently waiting for the opportunity to be vaccinated.

The Department of Health values those who serve in the Food Safety Branch and other department personnel. Many of them are considered frontline essential workers and are eligible to be vaccinated in phase 1b. Vaccinations for tens of thousands of people in phase 1b are being coordinated. This includes vaccinations for kupuna 75 and older and frontline essential workers including Food Safety Branch employees.

The demand for vaccines is currently much greater than supply. Everyone will eventually have the opportunity to be vaccinated. The Department of Health appreciates patience while supply catches up with demand.

Food establishments are still subject to state law and emergency proclamations designed to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the general public.

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