The National Environmental Health Association (NEHA) received a flood of emails at the beginning of the pandemic requesting information on how to deal with coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) concerns from a regulatory point of view and how to reopen businesses once the pandemic subsided. There continues to be a scarcity of guidance and protocols around environmental health needs during this unique time. When this was added to the fact that each jurisdiction was facing these concerns in its own way, a major problem loomed. Not every jurisdiction is created equal—or more appropriately, is funded equally—yet everyone is faced with deciding how to inspect and reopen businesses to get us back to normal. The result is that everyone is using a lot of resources to solve the same problem. There must be a better way.
This column is about basic concepts and solutions. It is about core ideas and responsibilities from different perspectives that could spark a dialogue (at least an internal one) around some of our common food safety and regulatory problems. The column is not about negating or minimizing the complex world in which we live and must function, and there is no pretense that we will say anything profound. We just want to communicate basic ideas.
As children, we learned to share; thankfully, that tendency has followed many into adulthood. At NEHA, while the emails and calls were coming in with requests for COVID-19 inspection protocols, people were also phoning in, asking how to share what their departments had created. A wealth of information was being produced at the local and state levels that was focused on reopening the country after the pandemic. There were forms for inspecting farmers markets and safety protocols for entering restaurants. Every new inspection form that was created took a lot of work, and every document of Standard Operating Procedures that was created in response to the pandemic took someone furrowing their brow and untangling a knotty problem. If they could share these resources, then the next drawn forehead could focus on a new problem.
The staff at NEHA came together and created a social platform to share these resources. The idea of a sharing portal had been tossed around at NEHA for a while but had not developed legs until COVID-19 caused an urgent need. The basic idea is that we are used to searching online for everything we need. The dryer breaks, and we watch a video to learn how to fix it. The sprinkler stops sprinkling, and 10 minutes later, we can be our own professional plumber. No one told someone to post about how they solved a pulley replacement problem for an old lawn mower, but they saw a gap in the available resources and shared their learnings online. (I needed this information, so I was happy they did!)
COVID-19 Response Online Community
To join the COVID-19 Response Online Community, you can sign up at community.neha.org/preparednesscommunity/home. NEHA membership is not required to be a member of the community; however, you will need to create a myNEHA account through NEHA.org. For any questions or concerns about COVID 19 Response Online Community membership or participation, please email here.
That is how the Internet works when it works well. What the Internet does not do well is curate information or give you the ability to chat with the document creator to gain a deeper understanding. That is, hopefully, where a focused social platform for peers with resources, protocols, and training programs will help. Many of you are rightly proud of the materials you have created and would embrace the chance for them to have a broader reach. Others would appreciate a starting point rather than feeling overwhelmed with having to create something in its entirety. This was the idea behind building a site for environmental health professionals to share with one another.
The platform, now developed, is known as the COVID-19 Response Online Community. This free resource is available for everyone to use and includes a community-generated resource library, a discussion board for needs and haves, calendars for short-notice webinars, and the ability to follow threads and topics relevant to each user. Based on successful examples from other social media platforms, there will also be a “Best Answer” mechanism for those who are used to sorting by “Average Customer Review.”
This same platform has been redesigned for standard regulatory food safety resources. It is a basic social platform where we can share both the simple and the complex food safety resources we have developed and/or use frequently. It is also, hopefully, where we go to find things as we need them.
Forum membership is diverse and is open to state, tribal, local, and territorial environmental and public health agencies and programs, other state agencies, federal agencies, national organizations, industry personnel, and academia. It is monitored to provide a safe and secure virtual environment perfect for peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing.
The basic idea is that pooling our resources will ease all our burdens and allow the things that have been created to have a larger life than if they were not shared. While the platform sits on a NEHA site right now, it is absolutely not just for NEHA. Anyone can use it, and hopefully we can build front doors from other associations and agencies.
When a group of us discussed doing some back-to-basics thinking for these columns, it was because we each knew that back to basics meant watching out for each other. We hope this is a resource you will populate and use. The idea is simply to share.
Rance Baker is the director of NEHA.
This article was originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Food Safety Magazine.