Federal shutdown would slow but not stop disease-control efforts

Apr 8, 2011 (CIDRAP News) – As the clock ticked toward a possible US government shutdown at midnight, federal officials said today that key activities to keep food safe and otherwise control infectious diseases would continue, albeit at reduced levels in many cases.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) vowed to keep on inspecting meat, poultry, and eggs, while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said its inspections of food products and drugs will continue but at a lower capacity than usual.

Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said it would continue its health protection activities, including disease surveillance and outbreak investigations, but with fewer staff than normal. All three agencies pledged to maintain emergency response capabilities.

By late this afternoon, US Senate and House leaders had not reached a budget deal to keep the government operating after financing expires at midnight, but senior aides were continuing to negotiate, the New York Times reported. Lawmakers and top aides still held out hope for a last-minute compromise.

USDA inspections to continue
A USDA official who requested anonymity released a statement today saying that most agency activities would be halted or reduced, but those related to law enforcement and protecting life and property would continue. Among the continuing activities are meat, poultry, and egg inspection services and import and export inspections designed to keep pests out of the country and prevent domestic pests from being exported.

The official said microbial testing for pathogens in meat and poultry will continue. "In the large majority of cases that testing is done by industry itself, but in cases where we do the testing, it will continue," he said.

However, the USDA statement said, "Assistance for the control of most plant and animal pests and diseases would be discontinued," and research facilities would be closed "except for the care of animals and plants."

A shutdown contingency plan for the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), posted online today, says the agency will continue responding to food safety emergencies. It will conduct emergency operations related to recalls of contaminated meat or poultry products, and it will conduct epidemiologic investigations of foodborne disease outbreaks.

FDA would throttle back
The FDA plans to maintain a skeleton staff if there's a shutdown. The agency has about 13,000 employees, and just under 2,000 of them will keep working, agency spokeswoman Meghan Scott told CIDRAP News.

"About half of those are field inspectors in the Office of Regulatory Affairs, and those inspectors will be continuing to do safety inspections of food, drug, and medical facilities," Scott said. "But it'll be at a diminished capacity." That will be true for imported foods as well.

She said the FDA's reportable food registry, which facilitates industry reporting of food hazards, will continue functioning. "There'll be staff in the office and able to monitor for any emergency situations, and in the event of some kind of public health emergency, whether foodborne illness or an emergency drug application, FDA will be able to call in the necessary staff," she added.

However, Scott said lab research on such things as new foodborne pathogens will be suspended.

CDC to slow down
At the CDC, activities to protect health will continue at a reduced level, but the shutdown could jeopardize health-promotion efforts, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) told CIDRAP News today.

The shutdown isn't likely to affect CDC activities that are involved in protecting human life and property and that operate on funds required by law, such as staffing the emergency operations center and operating the Vaccines for Children program, the official said.

Disease outbreak investigations will continue, but staffing reductions in the disease surveillance area could slow the CDC's ability to quickly detect outbreaks, the spokesman said. Some officers with the Epidemic Intelligence Service may be furloughed, but they could be called back in the event of an outbreak. CDC experts will still be available to consult with state public health officials on problems such as hard-to-diagnose infections, though at lower staffing levels.

CDC employees will continue to maintain biosecurity at laboratories, key studies will continue, and animals will continue to receive care, the official said. However, any new studies that were scheduled to begin during the shutdown will be delayed.

The publication of recommendations, reports, and periodicals such as Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report could be stopped or delayed, he added.

Programs that will be most affected by a shutdown are those funded through continuing resolutions, including programs to prevent obesity, diabetes, and tobacco use, according to the spokesman. CDC health surveys on topics such as health behaviors and interventions are also likely to be affected.

"At the end of the day, in a shutdown we likely could continue to protect health at somewhat of a reduced level, but the ability to promote health could be jeopardized," he said.

Overall HHS staffing
HHS, the parent agency of the FDA and CDC, expects to furlough 47,693 staff members and retain 28,655 as of the second day of a government shutdown, according to a contingency staffing plan that was posted online today. That means about 62% of HHS employees would be furloughed, but the percentage will vary widely across agencies, the plan states.

At grant-making and "employee-intensive" agencies, including the FDA, the vast majority of staff will be furloughed, the plan says. On the other hand, agencies with a "substantial direct service component," such as the Indian Health Service, will keep most of their employees working.

See also:

USDA FSIS shutdown plan

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