Northern Health running out of public health officers to permit and inspect restaurants

·2 min read
The commercial building that houses Northern Health's regional office in Prince George, B.C. The health authority announced on Tuesday that it's experiencing a significant shortage of environmental health officers. (Google Street View - image credit)
The commercial building that houses Northern Health's regional office in Prince George, B.C. The health authority announced on Tuesday that it's experiencing a significant shortage of environmental health officers. (Google Street View - image credit)

The Northern Health Authority says some public health services will be downgraded or delayed because of staffing issues.

In its news release Tuesday, the authority based in Prince George, B.C., announced officers will temporarily be focusing on higher public health risks, like COVID-19, and will be spending less time inspecting and permitting businesses, like restaurants, due to a "significant shortage" of environmental public health officers.

Northern Health says since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, environmental health officers have taken on new duties investigating coronavirus clusters and outbreaks and enforcing provincial public health orders.

Recent data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control shows Prince George is one of the B.C. municipalities most affected by COVID, with a daily rate of 14 coronavirus infection cases per 100,000 people.

Longer wait-time for food business permits

Northern Health chief medical health officer Jong Kim says given that more than 60 per cent of environmental health officer positions are currently vacant, existing officers have a "significant workload" with pandemic response.

While the health authority won't cut any services provided by environmental health officers, Kim says there will be delays for lower priority items such as permits for food vendors and routine restaurant inspections.

"That's one example of the kind of permits that take a longer time to process, and they [vendors] need to take consideration of that," he said.

Northern Health
Northern Health

In addition to COVID-19, Northern Health says some of the higher priority issues environmental health officers deal with include food-borne illnesses and public health concerns related to emergencies such as floods and fires.

Lower priority items, the authority said in a statement, include inspections of water systems and food-related businesses that could be done virtually.

The health authority says it is "aggressively" recruiting environmental health officers — its recent job posting says it requires candidates to have a bachelor's degree in a health-related discipline and a Canadian public health inspection certificate. In return, it is offering an hourly wage between $32 and $40 and four weeks of vacation after one year of continuous employment.

CBC News has reached out to other regional health authorities across B.C. for comment on any staffing issues with environmental health officers. Interior Health and Island Health responded and said they are not experiencing the kind of shortages Northern Health is.

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