Eat & Be Well: Food Safety Tips from Public Health

Reading Time: 3 minutes

This past Monday, June 7th, was World Food Safety Day. The United Nations has declared this day to draw global attention to the health consequences of contaminated food and water. Food safety and illness prevention and investigation are some of Public Health’s primary functions here in Skagit County, so we’d like to take this time to share some food safety tips with you!

But first…What is Foodborne Illness?

Foodborne illness often presents itself as flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or fever, so many people may not recognize the illness is caused by bacteria or other pathogens in food. Thousands of types of bacteria are naturally present in our environment.

Not all bacteria cause disease in humans. For example, some bacteria are used beneficially in making cheese and yogurt. Bacteria that cause disease are called pathogens. When certain pathogens enter the food supply, they can cause foodborne illness. Millions of cases of foodborne illness occur each year. Most cases of foodborne illness can be prevented. Proper cooking or processing of food destroys bacteria.

How Bacteria Get in Food?

Bacteria may be present on products when you purchase them. Plastic-wrapped boneless chicken breasts and ground meat, for example, were once part of live chickens or cattle. Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs are not sterile. Neither is fresh produce such as lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts, and melons. Foods, including safely cooked, ready-to-eat foods, can become cross-contaminated with bacteria transferred from raw products, meat juices or other contaminated products, or from food handlers with poor personal hygiene.

So how do you keep your food safe and pathogen free?

There are Four Steps to Food Safety: Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill.

1. Clean

  • Germs that cause food poisoning can survive in many places and spread around your kitchen.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before, during, and after preparing food and before eating.
  • Wash your utensils, cutting boards, and countertops with hot, soapy water.
  • Rinse fresh fruits and vegetables under running water.

2. Separate

Raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs can spread germs to ready-to-eat foods—unless you keep them separate. Here are some tips for avoiding cross-contamination:

  • Use separate cutting boards and plates for raw meat, poultry, and seafood.
  • When grocery shopping, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and their juices away from other foods.
  • Keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs separate from all other foods in the fridge.

3. Cook

Food is safely cooked when the internal temperature gets high enough to kill germs that can make you sick. The only way to tell if food is safely cooked is to use a food thermometer. You can’t tell if food is safely cooked by checking its color and texture.

Use a food thermometer to ensure foods are cooked to a safe internal temperature. Check this chart for a detailed list of foods and temperatures.

  • 145°F for whole cuts of beef, pork, veal, and lamb (then allow the meat to rest for 3 minutes before carving or eating)
  • 160°F for ground meats, such as beef and pork
  • 165°F for all poultry, including ground chicken and turkey
  • 165°F for leftovers and casseroles
  • 145°F for fresh ham (raw)
  • 145°F for fin fish or cook until flesh is opaque

4. Chill

  • Keep your refrigerator at 40°F or below and know when to throw food out.  
  • Refrigerate perishable food within 2 hours. (If outdoor temperature is above 90°F, refrigerate within 1 hour.)
  • Thaw frozen food safely in the refrigerator, in cold water, or in the microwave. Never thaw foods on the counter, because bacteria multiply quickly in the parts of the food that reach room temperature.
  • Bacteria can multiply rapidly if left at room temperature or in the “Danger Zone” between 40°F and 140°F. Never leave perishable food out for more than 2 hours (or 1 hour if it’s hotter than 90°F outside).

For more information, visit our webpage here! To submit a question, report a health hazard or concern to Environmental Health, go to our online feedback page.

You can also find other helpful information here:


Celebrating Safely This Easter

Reading Time: 3 minutes

“Here comes Peter Cottontail, Hoppin’ down the bunny trail, Hippity, hoppity, Easter’s on its way…”

Spring is here, the tulips are blooming, and Easter is just a hop-skip and a jump away. Spring is an exciting time—especially in the Skagit Valley—as we say “see ya later” to winter and begin planning for the warmer days ahead.

After a relatively dreary winter season, I’m eager to begin putting together spring and summer plans for my family. Like most, we’ve been essentially homebound this past year, and now that more and more people have gotten vaccinated, I’m feeling excited for what the next several months may bring.

That said, we still have a little ways to go until things can really open up again. COVID-19 is still spreading in our community, and with the new variants that we’re seeing across the state, it remains vitally important that we continue to use precaution.

So, what does that mean for Easter this coming Sunday?

The CDC continues to recommend staying home and postponing travel at this time. Doing so remains the best way to protect yourself and others this springtime. The recommendations are the same as they’ve been for a while: Limit your gatherings, keep a 6-foot distance, avoid unnecessary travel, wear a facemask, and wash your hands frequently.

Skagit County—and the rest of the state—is currently in Phase 3 of the Roadmap to Recovery, which means that indoor social and at-home gatherings have increased to 10 people from outside your household, and outdoor social and at-home gatherings have increased to a maximum of 50 people. When gathering, remember to wear your mask and practice safe distancing from non-household members.

The CDC’s recommendations are slightly different for those who have completed their series of COVID-19 vaccinations and have waited two weeks after their final dose. That said, everyone must continue to do everything that they can to end the pandemic until more is understood about how the vaccines will affect the spread of COVID-19 and how long protection lasts for those who have been vaccinated.

If you intend to travel for Easter (or at any time this spring or summer), please keep current travel recommendations and restrictions in mind. It is still recommended that Washingtonians avoid unnecessary travel when possible and delay travel if the traveler is experiencing signs of COVID-19 or has been recently exposed to someone with COVID-19. After all, travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19.

If you must travel, the CDC offers the following steps to protect yourself and others:

  • If you are eligible, get fully vaccinated for COVID-19.
  • Before you travel, get tested with a viral test 1-3 days before your trip.
  • Wear a mask over your nose and mouth when in public.
  • Avoid crowds and stay at least 6 feet (about 2 arm lengths) from anyone who did not travel with you.
  • Get tested 3-5 days after your trip and stay home and self-quarantine for a full 7 days after travel, even if your test is negative. If you don’t get tested, stay home and self-quarantine for 10 days after travel.
  • Follow all state and local recommendations or requirements after travel.

This news most likely isn’t what you were hoping for, especially since this is our second COVID Easter. However, compared to 2020 (ugh!), we have a lot more opportunities to celebrate safely this year!

If you’re feeling like me, you may be itching to make this year’s festivities a bit more…festive? The mom guilt is strong and I’m looking for new (and safe) ways to make Easter fun for my family. For those looking to shake up the usual “Easter egg and chocolate” routine, there are some great ideas online! This is the perfect year to try an Easter-themed Nature Scavenger Hunt or an Easter Egg Relay Race.

Looking to do something out of the house and in the community? Check out Skagit Kid Insider’s EASTER EGG HUNTS & ACTIVITIES GUIDE for some local events taking place this Easter weekend. If you decide to take part, please remember to wear your mask and follow all COVID-19 guidelines.

Hoppy Easter!


Thanksgiving Planning for Safer Gatherings

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Thanksgiving has always been a holiday full of planning: When should you start thawing the turkey? How many seats will you need at the table? And who—WHO?!—is bringing the pumpkin pie? While this year’s festivities will obviously be different, there will still be some planning involved.

If you have been watching the news, you know that there is a surge in COVID-19 cases right now—not only in Washington State, but throughout the United States. With the colder weather drawing people indoors, and the greater likelihood of transmission in enclosed spaces, it isn’t a surprise that cases have gone up. We also know that COVID-19 cases typically spike in the weeks following holidays when a lot of gatherings of non-household members take place.

With these factors in play, we must ask the uncomfortable question: Should Thanksgiving be canceled or postponed this year? It is a question, at least, to think critically on. After all, the Public Health recommendation continues to be that gatherings should be limited to reduce the risk of transmission.

However, if your family chooses to gather despite these recommendations, there are harm reduction practices that should be put into place. If you decide to gather, there’s always a risk of spreading COVID-19 infection. You can help lessen this risk through pre-planning, conversations, and some trade-offs.

The Washington Department of Health has a great safety checklist for those planning to gather this holiday season. It comes down to three steps: 1) planning before; 2) planning during; and 3) planning after.

Before You Gather

  • Have “the conversation.” Get really clear with friends and family about how you will make safety a priority when spending time together. Set some ground rules that will help everyone know what to expect. View a sample conversation guide
  • Review your guest list. Are there people who may be in a high-risk category or children? Think about special needs and precautions as part of your planning.
  • Check your space and gather outside if possible. Is there room to spread out, at least 6 feet (2m) from people you don’t live with? If no, is there an outdoor space, like a park where you could meet? If outside, will there be restrooms people can use? If inside, be sure your space is well ventilated by opening windows. Remind guests to wear warm clothes!
  • Right-size your guest list. Limit the number of guests based on the number allowed in your county per the Safe Start Plan, and the outdoor or indoor space available that allows you to be 6-feet apart.
  • Do a health check. Ask if anyone has had symptoms such as cough, fever or shortness of breath, in the last 2 weeks. Ask guests to check their temperature before arriving. Anyone with a fever—or who has had other symptoms, or knows they have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 within the last two weeks—should stay home.
  • Consider the children. Kids have trouble playing 6 feet apart, so wearing masks and frequent hand-washing may be the safest plan of action. Remember: Kids under 2 should never wear masks! 
  • Make a food plan. Talk through details like how food will be shared. The safest option is to have everyone bring their own food. If sharing, separate food ahead of time into individual servings and forgo communal bowls and utensils. Find more tips about food prep in the FAQs.
  • Clean, clean, clean. If you’re hosting, frequently disinfect surfaces that people may encounter during their visit. 
  • Consider pre-event quarantine. Can all participants (including yourself) self-quarantine for 14 days before the gathering?
  • Get tested. If you have been around many other people or do not regularly wear a mask, get a COVID-19 test to make sure you’re negative. Take into account that it can take a few days to receive test results. If you test negative, you still need to wear a mask and keep your distance from others when you socialize. 

While You Gather

  • Wash early and often. Ask adults and kids to wash hands on arrival, before and after eating, and before they leave with soap for at least 20 seconds. If there is no access to a sink, provide hand sanitizer. 
  • Gather outdoors if at all possible. If indoors, open windows to increase ventilation.
  • Mask up. Wear a face covering at all times when not eating. Consider having extra masks on hand if people forget.
  • Separate servings. Avoid communal food and sharing utensils, even with babies and young children. Don’t share drinks.
  • Avoid close contact. Smiles and air hugs only, and prepare kids ahead of time to do the same.

After You Gather

  • Wash hands (again). Wash for 20 seconds with soap and water.
  • Sanitize. Clean all surfaces that may have been touched by guests such as tabletops, counters, doorknobs and bathroom fixtures, with soap and water first, and then a disinfecting agent. 
  • Watch for symptoms. Alert others at the gathering if there’s a positive test among anyone in attendance. Learn more about what to do if you’ve been exposed.

If you are reading the above steps and feeling absolutely overwhelmed, you aren’t alone! And if the idea of canceling or postponing your Thanksgiving plans feels heartbreaking, that is an entirely normal response. During normal times, the fall and winter months are wonderful times to gather. So, limiting and changing the way in which we gather with family and friends isn’t easy. It may cause feelings of stress, anxiety or depression.

In the end, it is up to you and your family to decide what your Thanksgiving holiday should look like. But it is also important for us all to think hard about what really matters most to us. So even though the holidays may look a bit different this year, we know that our actions—as well as some planning—can go a long way in keeping all of us safe and healthy this winter.

If you are experiencing stress due to COVID-19, call the Washington Listens line at 833-681-0211 for support and resources.


Moving Indoors: Staying Safe & Healthy this Winter Season

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The summer clothes have been put away and the coats have officially come out. It seems that there have been more rainy days than sunny ones in the last few weeks, and temperatures have been dropping steadily. The leaves are hanging on, but winter is just around the corner. As we plan to snuggle in for the colder months ahead, it is time to begin thinking about safety precautions regarding COVID-19 and being indoors.

Is outdoors really safer?

Up until this point, Washingtonians have been pretty lucky given our temperate climate. Unlike our fellow states to the South, where people have sought shelter indoors during the hot summer months, we have been able to spend a lot of time in the great outdoors.

Being outdoors poses fewer health risks, since natural outdoor airflow and sunlight help to dissipate or kill viruses. Now that the weather will force many of us inside this winter, we will need to be more thoughtful about the way we live and socialize indoors.

Why does being indoors pose more risks?

Closed windows and doors decrease fresh airflow which can increase risk, especially when you have more people inside. Drier, less humid air from heating may also increase the risk.  

Although the virus spreads mainly through close contact with an infected person, studies have shown that COVID-19 can at times spread farther than six feet through the air. While these situations have been relatively uncommon, spread can be a problem where COVID-19 can build up in the air, such as in crowded, enclosed settings.

What can we do to decrease risk while indoors?

The risk of COVID-19 transmission increases with indoor gatherings compared to outdoors, but there are ways to reduce the spread and stay healthy. While the recommendation is still to avoid gathering with people who are not in your household, and to socialize outdoors when gatherings are unavoidable, we must realistically expect that there will be times when social events will take place indoors this winter.

Here are some tips for reducing the risks of transmission if you do plan to gather with non-household family members or friends:

1. Mask up: Cloth face masks should be worn at all times in indoor public places, including in your own home when visitors are present. You do not need to wear a mask indoors at home with your household members. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more information about masks and which ones are most effective.

2. Keep your circle small: Try to limit the number of people you and your household are around as much as possible, and also be mindful of the amount of time you spend with these individuals indoors.  When socializing, stay as far apart as possible, even with masks on.  Remember, the guidance is not “mask up OR stay six feet or more of distance.” Rather, the safer thing to do is to wear a mask AND stay six feet or more apart from others.

3. Increase air flow:  Do what you can to improve ventilation in indoor spaces, including opening windows when possible. More fresh air means lower risk. The COVID-19 virus can build up in the air over time, especially in crowded, enclosed settings, where ventilation is limited. The risk of transmission further increases when people are not wearing masks, or when groups are doing activities that involve speaking loudly, singing or exercising (when we exhale more virus-containing particles into the air). 

If possible, adjust the ventilation system to increase the intake of outdoor air; this can be achieved by placing a fan on a window sill and encouraging outdoor air to flow into the room, or opening windows on either side of the home to encourage airflow throughout the house. Do not open windows and doors if doing so poses a safety or health risk to children or other family members (e.g., risk of falling or triggering asthma symptoms).

Check out the EPA’s webpage on home ventilation for more tips: www.epa.gov/coronavirus/indoor-air-homes-and-coronavirus-covid-19.

4. Clean and disinfect: The primary and most important mode of transmission for COVID-19 is through close contact between people. However, it may be possible for a person to contract COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes. While experts do not believe that this is the main way the virus spreads, it is good to take precautions.

If an indoor visit is unavoidable, be sure to clean and disinfect commonly touched surfaces, including counter tops, door knobs, light switches, and toilet seats. And of course, be sure that people are washing and disinfecting hands frequently. For cleaning tips, visit www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/disinfecting-your-home.html.

5. Take sniffles seriously: If you, or a potential guest, are experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19 (no matter how mild), it is best to postpone your get-together for another time. It is much safer to take a rain check than to put yourself and your loved ones at risk of infection.

It is also important to remember that COVID-19 often spreads from people before they develop symptoms or recognize that they are sick. This means that there is a risk of transmission any time a group of non-household members congregate, so all the above precautions are necessary.

We can’t depend on any one preventative measure alone. Instead, we need to use a combination of strategies to most effectively reduce the risk of transmission. These steps include wearing a mask, limiting interactions with others outside the home, staying at least six feet away from others, improving ventilation, practicing good hygiene and cleaning, and staying home when sick.

It may mean some challenges this winter, but we can all do our part to make it work.


Red Ribbon Week & Youth Substance Use

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Red Ribbon Week is dedicated to spreading awareness about youth substance use prevention and the mission of keeping all kids drug-free. It takes place every year from October 23 through October 31st, and this year is no exception. Your student’s health teacher or prevention specialist may be touching on some prevention messaging right now, so it could be a prime opportunity to continue this conversation with your child (if you aren’t doing so already). So let’s talk prevention!

Why is it important?

Ninety percent of people with addictions started using substances in their teen years. Beginning at age 10 through the mid- to late-20s, massive changes are underway in the brain. This includes the development of capabilities related to impulse control, managing emotions, problem-solving and anticipating consequences. Substance use during this time period can cause the brain to be more susceptible to addiction and other mental health disorders, especially for kids who are vulnerable.

Substance use and COVID-19

Some early research is coming out that shows that youth substance use rates are being negatively impacted by COVID-19 and social distancing measures. An article written in the Journal for Adolescent Health noted that, of those adolescents surveyed, “the percentage of users decreased [since the beginning of COVID-19]; however, the frequency of both alcohol and cannabis use increased.” Perhaps of more concern is that, while the majority of those using substances were engaging in solitary substance use (49.3%), “many were still using substances with peers via technology (31.6%) and, shockingly, even face to face (23.6%).” For parents who are actively working to keep their kids COVID-free, this added information may be worrisome.

Risks of use and COVID-19

We do not know yet if the occurrence of COVID-19 is higher for people who use drugs or have substance use disorder than for those who don’t use drugs, however some underlying medical conditions seem to increase risk of severe illness from COVID-19. For example, vaping may harm lung health, and emerging evidence suggests that exposure to aerosols from e-cigarettes harms the cells of the lung and diminishes the ability to respond to infection. For this reason, it is possible that drug use could make COVID-19 illness more severe, but more evidence is needed.

Can parents really make a difference?

Absolutely! Parents are the biggest influence in a teen’s life. Even though it may not appear to be true at times, deep down they still want you involved. A strong parent/child bond, especially during the teen years, helps reduce the chances of them engaging in unhealthy behavior and helps set the stage for preventing nicotine, alcohol, and drug use.

When and how to talk about substance use?

These conversations should happen frequently, and typically work best when a parent and child are already engaging in some type of activity together. It is important to listen, show empathy, and be understanding. Connecting often, communicating about your expectations and setting boundaries, and even encouraging healthy risk taking are all things that parents can do to set their children up for success.

Parents can begin talking with their children about drug prevention at a surprisingly young age! These early conversations may not sound exactly like “drug prevention;” instead, the focus should be on laying a strong foundation of trust and openness, while also teaching (and demonstrating) healthy habits. For tips on how to talk to your child at any age, visit: https://drugfree.org/article/prevention-tips-for-every-age/.

What should parents be looking out for?

Figuring out if your child is using substances can be challenging; many of the signs and symptoms are typical teen or young adult behavior. However, sometimes they can be attributed to underlying issues.  Mental health concerns like depression and anxiety, as well as traumatic events or periods of transition, can create a greater risk for the development of problematic substance use. Children and teens are dealing with a lot of changes right now, making it all the more important that parents be looking out for concerning behavior.

If you have reason to suspect use, don’t be afraid to err on the side of caution. Prepare to take action and have a conversation during which you can ask direct questions like “Have you been drinking, vaping or using drugs?” No parent wants to hear “yes,” but being prepared for how you would respond can be the starting point for a more positive outcome.

Where do I go for help?

There is help available if you are concerned that your child may be using substances—or even if you’re struggling with how to begin a conversation! Drugfree.org has one-on-one help available for parents: visit https://drugfree.org/article/get-one-on-one-help/ for ways to connect.

Want to get involved in your community?

Between now and December 15th, our three prevention community coalitions are collecting information from Skagit County adults (18+) about their perceptions regarding local youth substance use. Do you live or work in one of these communities? Consider filing out the survey! Your feedback has direct influence on prevention programming available for youth and families.

Mount Vernon
English- https://www.research.net/r/SKMTVEEN2020
Spanish- https://es.research.net/r/SKMTVESP2020

Sedro-Woolley
English- https://www.research.net/r/SKSEWOEN2020
Spanish- https://es.research.net/r/SKSEWOSP2020

Concrete
English- https://www.research.net/r/SKCOEN2020

For more information about prevention in Skagit County, visit: https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/Health/preventionmain.htm