A closer look at health de­part­ment

In­spec­tions at restau­rants, ho­tels and pools help to keep Polk county safe.

The Standard Journal - - FRONT PAGE - By Kevin Myrick SJ Ed­i­tor

There’s a lot to be said for the work the Polk County Health De­part­ment does on a daily ba­sis to keep the pub­lic safe from all kinds of haz­ards. Most peo­ple don’t pay much at­ten­tion to this work as they fight a con­stant bat­tle to en­sure the pub­lic at large re­mains healthy and that un­due harm isn’t in­flicted by the bad habits of busi­ness own­ers and lo­cal res­i­dents alike.

The Polk County Health De­part­ment is part of the North­west Ge­or­gia Pub­lic Health di­vi­sion of the Ge­or­gia De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health, one of 10 coun­ties in the district. The or­ga­ni­za­tion is re­spon­si­ble for a lot of dif­fer­ent ar­eas where they touch the lives of lo­cal peo­ple, from pro­vid­ing health care ser­vices as part of the Women, In­fant and Chil­dren pro­gram, vac­ci­na­tions, in­spec­tions for a va­ri­ety of ser­vice-based busi­nesses and more.

For the past 6 years, the statewide De­part­ment of Pub­lic Health has op­er­ated as a standalone agency so funds could be solely fo­cused on pro­vid­ing health-re­lated ser­vices within a nar­row purview to the pub­lic. Over­all, there are 18 districts in the state, em­ploy­ing thou­sands of peo­ple in Ge­or­gia with the goal of keep­ing epi­demics from spread­ing, food safe to eat, and more.

That over­all mis­sion of keep­ing the pub­lic healthy will be the fo­cus in the com­ing months of a multi- part se­ries on the var­i­ous ways of­fi­cials im­pact the lives of lo­cal res­i­dents, and in many ways peo­ple might not have con­sid­ered be­fore. Read more in this first in­stall­ment be­low to learn about how the health de­part­ment touches the lives of Polk County morn­ing, af­ter­noon, evening and night by en­sur­ing the food they are served, ho­tel beds are clean and pools are well main­tained.

In­spect­ing the chefs

Posted in ev­ery es­tab­lish­ment cook­ing and serv­ing f ood i n Polk County is a sign that looks a lot like a com­pli­cated re­port card, and printed in big nu­mer­als and a let­ter grade is the score. The rules re­quire this doc­u­ment be in plain view for cus­tomers to see and de­cide if they want to eat food from that kitchen, whether good or bad.

That’s the job of Polk County’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Health Man­ager Kathy Couey Miller, who among her many daily as­sign­ments is tasked with pok­ing around lo­cal kitchens and din­ing rooms serv­ing cus­tomers daily. Through in­spec­tions that can take hours to com­plete, Miller searches through store rooms and looks over steel sur­faces all with one goal in mind: en­sur­ing that food served up is as safe to eat as she can pos­si­bly make it.

Miller takes the job se­ri­ously. Upon en­ter­ing a kitchen in the Cedar­town area in the past weeks, her first stop is to wash her hands at the clos­est sink she can find, look­ing to make sure that it has soap and pa­per tow­els. She’s look­ing to see if it is be­ing used by em­ploy­ees.

Then she looks around for other po­ten­tial prob­lems. Any­where along the line where food is stored, then pre­pared and served up can cause con­tam­i­na­tion from bac­te­ria or viruses that can make cus­tomers sick. That’s her job in a nutshell when­ever she is sent out to in­spect a restau­rant: mak­ing sure peo­ple don’t get sick from eat­ing an other­wise good meal.

When­ever she is in a kitchen, Miller is con­stantly check­ing and search­ing for any­thing that doesn’t look right. She wants to make sure ma­chines used in pre­par­ing food are cleaned and cov­ered up when not in use, and then is be­ing kept clean once it has come into con­tact with in­gre­di­ents. She’s look­ing at how plates, sil­ver­ware and cups be­ing re­moved from ta­bles in the din­ing room through the dish­wash­ing process, mak­ing sure they are stored prop­erly un­til used again for an­other or­der.

Miller’s goal is to find noth­ing wrong, but like all peo­ple no one is ever per­fect. She usu­ally finds prob­lems in food stor­age, la­bel­ing and one par­tic­u­lar place that is a con­stant prob­lem: ice ma­chines.

“Ice ma­chines are a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem,” Miller said. “If t hey aren’t cleaned reg­u­larly, they can de­velop mold and bac­te­ria growth, es­pe­cially dur­ing the sum­mer when there’s more hu­mid­ity.”

The small prob­lem s are usu­ally the ones that get a kitchen into hot wa­ter with the Health De­part­ment, and usu­ally don’t sub­tract much from the over­all score. It is when Miller finds big­ger prob­lem that a restau­rant will get a lower score, and she’ll go back within a few weeks to see if man­age­ment has cor­rected prob­lems and rescore the restau­rant for the month.

Ad­di­tion­ally, restau­rants with fail­ing scores are also re­quired to un­dergo more food safety train­ing with staff to en­sure that the same prob- lems aren’t com­ing up again. Com­plaints from cus­tomers made to the de­part­ment can also cause a sur­prise in­spec­tion, and in those times Miller can find prob­lems just as much as she can find that noth­ing is wrong at all.

When a restau­rant fails to live up to the Health De­part­ment’s re­quire­ments, they go through sev­eral dif­fer­ent lev­els of cor­rec­tive ef­forts be­fore they reach a point where they are shut down. Miller said that the Health De­part­ment’s goal isn’t to force a restau­rant to close, but to work with busi­ness own­ers to get prob­lems fixed.

“Our goal isn’t to get in the way of a restau­rant from serv­ing peo­ple,” she said. “We want to help a busi­ness do a bet­ter job of pre­par­ing and serv­ing food safely. We want a restau­rant to be suc­cess­ful, and we want them to do a good job so our job is eas­ier to do.”

A task some­times dif­fi­cult to com­plete.

It is when those prob­lems per­sist that they end up in for­mal pro­ceed­ings, fac­ing shut­down from health of­fi­cials and a hear­ing be­fore the board of health on whether the restau­rant should be al­lowed to con­tinue op­er­a­tions.

Those in­stances are rare, and with more than 100 food ser­vice es­tab­lish­ments un­der the health de­part­ment’s purview in the county alone, the hours can add up for the amount of time spent in kitchens for Miller and her as­sis­tant.

Miller’s role as man­ager also places her in charge of look­ing over the op­er­a­tions of kitchens used to pre­pare food in cater­ing ser­vice, and for those who also op­er­ate food trucks like Timbo’s bar­be­cue.

Also in most cases, when a restau­rant pro­poses to open and are build­ing or re­mod­el­ing a space for a kitchen, Miller and her de­part­ment are in­volved in the de­sign and flow of the space to en­sure the least amount of po­ten­tial food con­tam­i­na­tion by start­ing with the lay­out of a kitchen, elim­i­nat­ing points of con­tact by us­ing ar­chi­tec­tural plans.

One area where the Health De­part­ment doesn’t usu­ally in­spect is self-ser­vice food and drink sta­tions at lo­cal gas sta­tions. Though they are in­spected, that falls un­der the job of the U.S. De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture and their in­spec­tors.

No in­spec­tions are re- quired for lo­cal res­i­dents who pro­vide food at events like the Home­spun Fes­ti­val in Rock­mart, where since it is a fundraiser is ex­cluded from usual food ser­vice rules. Ad­di­tion­ally, those who are mak­ing cook­ies and cakes for bake sales or school events are also not un­der the health de­part­ment’s purview, since those or­ga­ni­za­tions usu­ally fall un­der a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Miller did say that those par­tic­i­pat­ing in those kinds of events should take proper pre­cau­tions against food con­tam­i­na­tion, for the sim­ple rea­son to keep cus­tomers happy and healthy with their food.

Search­ing the sheets, div­ing into pool safety

Kitchens aren’t the only area Miller is in­spect­ing on a daily ba­sis. Her job takes her into a lot of dif­fer­ent places, but one not thought about much but with big im­pli­ca­tions for pub­lic health are also checked for clean­li­ness.

Ho­tel rooms are i n pop­u­lar cul­ture seen as a ger­mo­phobe’s worst night­mare, but in re­al­ity are kept to just as strict stan­dards as restau­rants.

Miller and her as­sis­tant are re­quired to look just as thor­oughly through lo­cal ho­tel rooms as they are through a restau­rant’s kitchen. Miller has more spe­cific re­quire­ments in her search of tem­po­rary res­i­dences, look­ing at the clean­li­ness of beds and sheets, of toi­lets and tubs and more.

“Sev­eral of our ho­tels on the out­side might look older, but I can as­sure you af­ter years of look­ing at rooms in Cedar­town and Rock­mart that ev­ery one of our fa­cil­i­ties is safe to stay in,” she said.

Just as restau­rants are re­quired to keep a score posted in pub­lic view, so are ho­tels.

Lucky for Miller, the other in­spec­tion area that touches the lives of Polk County res­i­dents — or at least their sum­mer vis­i­tors — is in the pair of ho­tel pools.

Miller makes sure pH lev­els are kept right and ma­chin­ery is pump­ing treated wa­ter through the sys­tem right, and that proper main­te­nance and test­ing is be­ing done by ho­tel em­ploy­ees to keep wa­ter-borne ill­nesses are kept at bay.

The goal is to avoid bac­te­ria and viruses that can cause peo­ple to get sick just by jump­ing in for a quick swim dur­ing the sum­mer months.

‘Our goal isn’t to get in the way of a restau­rant from serv­ing peo­ple. We want to help a busi­ness do a bet­ter job of pre­par­ing and serv­ing food safely.’ Kathy Couey-Miller Polk County’s En­vi­ron­men­tal Health Man­ager

Kevin Myrick / SJ

Rule No. 1 for En­vi­ron­men­tal Health Man­ager Kathy Couey-Miller, who over­sees restau­rant in­spec­tions in Polk County: wash your hands.

En­vi­ron­men­tal Health Man­ager Kathy Couey-Miller uses a ther­mome­ter to check the tem­per­a­ture of warm foods, like the pizza shown above, and cold foods, like the bev­er­ages be­low, to make sure ev­ery­thing is kept at a safe op­ti­mum tem­per­a­ture. Kevin...

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