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Teleworking Behind-the-Scenes to Support Essential Industries

April 20, 2020


You’ve probably seen him before. A friendly face on the news, providing information that can often only come from the State Department of Health. MCEC member and Environmental Health Program Manager Peter Oshiro has gained the public’s trust by cutting through the red tape and breaking down information in ways that Hawaii’s residents can understand, relate to and, well … trust.

“The State Department of Human Resources and Development and the Department of Health haven’t provided any formal definitions, but our office has self-classified as essential and most employees began teleworking in March,” he says. Under normal circumstances, Oshiro and his team of 34 employees generally investigate and prevent food illness and other communicable risk factors associated with the food industry. During this pandemic, his top priority was to protect his frontline employees that interact directly with their superiors, subordinates, the general public, and the regulated industry. “We immediately reduced the number of staff physically reporting to the office to prevent unneeded social contact. I told my team to shelter at home but to remain flexible so they could come in if it was absolutely necessary.”

Thanks to his decisiveness and swift actions, Oshiro successfully transitioned his office to teleworking. “All staff are provided with hotspots, mobile devices and smart phones,” he says. In addition to regularly checking email and taking phone calls, employees are expected to be available for food illness investigations or other imminent health hazards. “Recently, one of our food safety specialists notified her supervisors that she noticed an online ad where some restaurants were changing their “ready-to-eat” meal operations by unknowingly modifying their food packaging in a very dangerous manner to distribute to the public,” he says. “The supervisor then notified the food safety specialist in charge of the facility and through teleworking he contacted them remotely to educate and enforce safety regulations because although business has slowed, the food industry remains open, and we need to continue to enforce food safety standards for the public.”

Essential employees behind essential industries

Regulating Hawaii’s food industry alone is no small task, but Oshiro’s team also helps regulate other industries, including the essential construction industry. “Part of our function is to also review and approve building plans for new construction and renovation for the industries we regulate like restaurants, markets, swimming pools, tattoo parlors, mortuaries, and so on,” he says, noting that not all industries they regulate are essential. “During this crisis, the construction industry is deemed essential, which requires our staff to review and approve necessary plans as we cannot hold up construction. Our formal requests for personal protective equipment (PPE) have not produced any tangible supplies, so staff must provide for themselves while we work to support construction and other essential industries.” 

As a public health professional, Oshiro takes this crisis extremely seriously. “To this day, I have nothing. My staff has nothing, and I won’t send them out without proper equipment. I’m not going to be part of the problem,” he says about sending his staff to on-site inspections without proper PPE and risking their safety. Oshiro’s office remains open for business with a skeleton crew and DIY protective barriers. “We’re going to continue working, but it’s tough. We made a partition for our office window and mapped out social distancing markers on the ground, but it’s all stuff we did on our own to keep ourselves and the public safe.”

Finding focus in a lack of leadership

Like with hurricanes or tsunamis, people look to a single authority for consistent, reliable information during an emergency. Unfortunately, Oshiro sees a lack of consistent communication during this pandemic. “The fluidity of the situation and the escalation by the mayors calling for differing restrictions and advice regarding PPE shows that the ICS (Incident Command System) has broken down completely,” he says. “The unified message is every mayor does their own thing and on Oahu, the Governor and the Mayor do their own things, so residents remain confused. Giving the public mixed or inconsistent messaging during a crisis leads to a lack of confidence in our government officials.”

Oshiro recognizes that this crisis is unprecedented but encourages us not to panic. In addition to using common sense, he recommends listening to the subject matter experts like, “People with ‘MD’ after their names rather than politicians with a lack of credibility to speak on this pandemic,” he says. “Practice social distancing, stay home if you’re not well and wash your hands often. The video messaging that Randy has done for members is very helpful,” he says about HGEA Executive Director Randy Perreira. “Without HGEA keeping the Mayors, Governor, legislature, and the medias’ actions in check, they would surely run amok.”



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