By Amber KurkaMay 5, 2020
For food safety Soldiers at Public Health Activity-Guam, keeping others safe is a top priority as Guam installations respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Utilizing a team-based approach to help in the fight against COVID-19, PHA-Guam took over all food safety responsibilities aboard Naval Base Guam to alleviate the workload of Navy preventive medicine personnel.
“When the coronavirus started to become an issue, we sat down with Navy preventive medicine to develop a strategy,” said Army Chief Warrant Officer 4 Jeffery Mitchell, PHA-Guam senior food safety officer. “We realized we had to implement mitigation measures for COVID-19 at food facilities to keep the military community safe.”
In total, that meant inspecting approximately 40 facilities on base, including the commissary, Navy Exchange food court, shoppettes, galleys, and restaurants.
Starting at the NEX food court, food safety Soldiers went to work identifying areas of risk and implementing COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“Since the NEX food court has a lot of customers, we decided to go there first and use it as our training lab,” explained Mitchell. “We looked at all of the different areas where people could potentially spread the virus. We focused on common areas where people would do a lot of touching and breathing, places such as seating areas and where utensils and condiments are available for customers.”
To help mitigate risk, the team worked with managers to train employees on sanitation measures, as well as adjusting common areas to limit customer contact.
“We focused on customer interactions and enforcing good personal hygiene. For an example, when an employee completed a transaction they would have to wash their hands or change their gloves,” said Mitchell. “We also looked at social distancing requirements to make sure customers could stand six feet apart.”
The team also focused on traditional food safety and sanitation inspections in addition to COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“Food safety is important to everyone’s health,” explained Army Warrant Officer Jaime Jones, PHA-Guam branch food safety officer. “While COVID-19 mitigation measures are important, we also need to keep customers safe from foodborne illness.”
Food safety includes everything from proper food storage, washing hands, preventing cross contamination of foods during preparation, proper cooking temperatures, clean up and disinfection and many steps in between.
One of the largest food safety efforts PHA-Guam supports are mass feeding operations for sailors in quarantine.
“There are many sailors here in quarantine that need daily meals delivered to them,” explained Mitchell. “In order to produce those meals, restaurants have had to adjust their operations from single order meals to the mass production of meals. When restaurants change how they operate, a lot of things can go wrong.”
To keep sailors safe from foodborne illness, Soldiers from PHA-Guam conduct daily on-site assessments to ensure food services maintain safety measures during meal preparations.
“We are inspecting things like the temperature of the food throughout the preparation process,” explained Mitchell. “We are also making sure employees follow preparation and sanitation steps. When restaurants produce large quantities of food it can be really easy for steps to be skipped or forgotten, which could make people ill.”
Since COVID-19 mitigation measures need to be followed, the team also works to ensure food is not sitting for long durations of time before it is delivered and eaten.
“To limit the contact between the staff and the sailors in quarantine, the food is boxed up and delivered to central locations with no physical contact to limit the spread of COVID-19,” explained Mitchell. “So we are at the restaurants making sure it is picked up in a timely manner and not sitting for extended periods of time to keep it safe for sailors to eat.”
As of April 29, the team has inspected more than 115,000 meals that have been served to sailors in quarantine.
“Our Soldiers are out there every day working hard to keep others safe,” said Jones.
In addition to supporting the sailors in quarantine, PHA-Guam Soldiers are also working to ensure all food going to ships is safe for consumption.
“There are thousands of sailors on the ships,” said Jones. “So we are conducting pier side inspections of food deliveries before they go onto the ship.”
To keep Soldiers and sailors safe, the team follows special procedures on the pier to limit contact and touching.
“To stop the spread of COVID-19, there is a clean and a dirty side of the pier,” explained Mitchell. “We are not allowed to go into the clean areas, so food deliveries are dropped off at a specific point. Navy personnel will open up all of the boxes and our food inspectors will observe the contents to make sure they are safe.”
For PHA-Guam food safety Soldiers, the COVID-19 response has truly been a team effort with Navy partners; as PHA-Guam Soldiers embrace the Public Health Command-Pacific credo of “100/0!” which means 100 percent accountability and responsibility and zero excuses for not giving our best every day.
“Everyone has a stake in mitigation efforts,” said Mitchell. “This is about working together as a team to keep service members safe and healthy, whether it is preventing foodborne illness or preventing the spread of COVID-19. We are all in this together.”