CDC Calls Back Furloughed Scientists to Handle Salmonella Outbreak

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Only two of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s foodborne pathogen investigators were on duty during the government shutdown as a salmonella outbreak continued to sicken nearly 300 people in 18 states.

Updated Oct. 9

Barbara Reynolds, the CDC’s public affairs director told TIME that 30 workers were brought back to monitor the agency’s foodborne illness network, PulseNet, which tracks cases of salmonella, E.coli, Listeria or other infections due to contaminated food. During the shutdown, only one CDC member was watching PulseNet and Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the CDC, told CBS News that two-thirds of the agency’s workers were on furlough.

The doctors and scientists returned the day after the U. S. Department of Agriculture issued a public health alert about salmonella contamination in raw chicken produced by three Foster Farms facilities in California. So far, 278 people have become sick since the bacterial contamination was first reported to the USDA in July; 42% of them were hospitalized.

(MORE: Why It’s Taking So Long to Find the Source of the Cyclospora Contamination)

Did the shutdown contribute to more rapid spread of the pathogen? Frieden decided that not having PulseNet properly manned was “an imminent threat to health and safety,” Reynolds said to USA Today. PulseNet serves as the hub for public health laboratories around the country to report and monitor cases of illness, and the system is critical for tracking not just the cases of infection, but also the strains of bacteria that are responsible for causing illness. So far, according to the CDC, seven strains of salmonella Heidelberg have been connected to the outbreak, many of which are resistant to commonly used antibiotics that are used to treat the infection. That’s why Frieden brought back nearly the full staff of scientists who follow foodborne pathogens, to ensure that the resistant strains are contained as quickly as possible. “We just had a harder time exchanging information because we weren’t entering data through PulseNet,” says Reynolds.

The returning CDC employees are not being paid, and although there are plans to pay some government workers retroactively, it’s unclear who will actually see a check.

Foster Farms has not recalled the chicken, but advised consumers to use a meat thermometer and cook the chicken properly, until it reaches an internal temperature of 165 degrees F.