COL Public Health works appropriately to protect community

By Rich Peter

Recently, a Post-Bulletin editor's commentary implied that the public is being placed at unnecessary health risk when the news media is not promptly informed by Olmsted County Public Health Services about the investigation of a disease outbreak that is alleged to be associated with one or more public services or events.

Our staff is composed of local residents who are highly aware of their responsibility to reduce the public's exposure to a potential health risk. They work every day to carry out our mission: "To protect, promote and provide for our community's health. …"; We administer important community responsibilities based on legal direction and guidance from state law, county board policy and citizen advisory boards.

In 2000, our organization, with community involvement, received a highly respected national consumer protection award for our innovative food protection system. That system is now being promoted across the nation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a public protection model.

We follow up on reports from food service operators, physicians and individuals every week informing us about illness cases. The investigations include determining if there was exposure at public facilities such as restaurants, lodging places, schools, day cares, churches, swimming pools or special events. We find that about 5 percent of the cases lead to an association with a public place or event.


Investigators work to find answers to questions such as the following:

What is the illness? How infectious and how threatening are its symptoms?

When and where did the exposure occur?

Is the exposure a public place or event? Is it still present and is at other places?

What conditions could reintroduce the risk at the affected place(s)?

Are there lawful steps that now must be taken by the facility operator and by public health to ensure the public is protected?

The public media system can be an important party in helping this process, and we are very appreciative of their help. Occasionally news media inquire about a situation that might be part of an investigation that is under way and is not yet reported to the media. We try to accommodate those inquiries, within the limits of state law, and provide the most accurate information we have available for them at the time.

Some media representatives assert that we must proactively report investigations that are under way, even though we might not yet have adequately investigated the situation. This might make interesting reading; however, we believe such reports can work against the public interest.


It is essential for the directly involved parties, including the implicated facility, to respectfully work with speed in carefully gathering and processing data. Such information is needed to track down the disease source, identify the contamination routes, and take actions that could involve other businesses -- local or nationwide.

A food service might temporarily close to help gather information from their suppliers, employees, equipment, inventory and customers. They want to know what, if anything, they can do to ensure reasonable safety for their customers. Premature public reports -- especially those that improperly imply danger associated with a closed food service operation -- leads to public confusion, unfounded accusations, anxiety, and, sometimes, inappropriate destruction of businesses.

Minnesota law allows release of information after there is sufficient investigation of a disease outbreak. Proper investigations support appropriate, timely protective actions and advice that are based on fact.

These are the rules that public health must follow. They help ensure that the public is not misled and that investigations are prompt and accurate.

More information about investigation of food-borne illness outbreaks in Minnesota can be found on the Web at

Thank you for considering another perspective on an important public health issue.

Rich Peter is director of environmental health for Olmsted County Public Health Services.

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