New Bedford health inspectors, usually tasked with auditing restaurants for cleanliness and responding to sanitation complaints, have taken on the burden of ensuring other city businesses are abiding by COVID-19 protocols. 

In the midst of the first wave, when the state was shut down, the city put in place several COVID-19 emergency orders that left inspectors to oversee long term care facilities, fish houses, and manufacturing plants. 

At that time in mid-April, inspectors had already been feeling overwhelmed. Their health department didn’t have enough staff to routinely inspect all of these businesses.

Gail Joseph, the city’s lead inspector, said it’s become worse since the state reopened restaurants, day care centers, and churches. The department is also down to six inspectors, instead of its usual eight. 

“It's not going as well as we would like, we are pretty stressed and exhausted,” Joseph said.  “We can't get to everything as quickly as we would like, and respond to things as quickly as we would like, but we are still getting there.”

The city has conducted dozens of inspections since the pandemic started and there hasn’t been any large COVID-clusters so far, according to the department.

Joseph said the majority of COVID cases can be traced back to households where one family member infects another. And when those individuals go to work, at a restaurant, for example, the virus can quickly spread to other members of the community. 

“We've had some of these workers work at one [restaurant] and go to another restaurant so now you've got the two closed [restaurants] instead of the one,” Joseph said. “And it's not just happening once and that’s it. What we're finding out is that they take care of one thing and then two weeks later, somebody else comes in sick because they contacted it at home and went to work and didn't know it.”

These revolving cases of community spread is why having proper COVID-19 protocols in place is so important. But without the staff to conduct consistent inspections, the city’s health department puts itself at risk for missing a potential outbreak.

In order to fill in the gaps, the health department relies on information from other sources. 

First, it relies on businesses to report positive COVID-19 cases to the health department, mandated through a local emergency order passed in the spring. Nearly 70 businesses have reported positive cases so far. 

The department also depends on information from contact tracers and complaints from the public. 

“If there's a cluster in a particular place, we've usually received complaints about that place,” deputy health director Stephanie Sloan said. “So we've been trying to pay attention to where our complaints have been coming in, and what they look like.”

The health department has received over 340 COVID-19 related complaints since June. The majority of those complaints are about customers and employees not wearing masks. Less common complaints are around businesses failing to implement social distancing and quarantine employees.

All of these complaints, in addition to the information received from businesses and contact tracers, need to be responded to by the city’s inspectors who are also juggling routine inspections for hundreds of businesses. 

Damōn Chaplin, New Bedford’s health director, said the city needs help. 

“We're underfunded, we're undermanned, and we're under resourced, and we need more,” Chaplin said. 

Chaplin said the state needs to step up and set aside more funds for local health departments. 

He’s not alone. Dozens of health directors from the state’s 351 local health departments have pleaded for more resources from state legislators since the pandemic began. 

“What we need is more support from the state government for local public health,” Chaplin said. “So that we can build our capacity, we can build our infrastructure, so that we have the systems in place to adequately respond to situations like this.”

Governor Charlie Baker signed a bill in April that would set aside $1.7 million in next year’s budget for a grant program to assist health departments. The 2021 budget, yet to be finalized, plans to allocate $10 million dollars for grants to local and regional boards of health to help mitigate the impacts from COVID-19. 

What Chaplin and other health directors are asking for is something different. They’re asking for an annual line item in the budget dedicated to local public health, not a one-time distribution of funds through a competitive grant process.

Massachusetts is one of only a few states in the country that doesn’t have this annual funding to local health departments in place.

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Nadine Sebai is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. She can be reached at nsebai@ripr.org or (508) 441-4636.