WALLINGFORD — The town Health Department investigated 169 COVID-19-related complaints last year, according to the department’s annual report.
Health Director Stephen Civitelli presented the 2020 report Wednesday at the quarterly Board of Health meeting, which included information on the number of environmental health inspections performed and nuisance complaints investigated.
“We were busy on different fronts,” Civitelli said. “… You can see where we were heavier in some areas, and lower in some areas, but certainly there's a lot more activity for our environmental inspectors overall, just based on the sheer volume of complaints.”
During the first four months of the COVID-19 pandemic, from mid-March to mid-July, local health officials investigated 75 complaints related to COVID-19 safety guidelines, which accounted for 44 percent of the annual total.
Common complaints were for improper use of face masks, missing gloves or capacity violations.
The Health Department categorizes COVID-19-related complaints as nuisance complaints, along with reports of garbage, odors, dog feces, bed bugs, mold or rodents and sanitary conditions at restaurants, grocery stores, hair and nail salons.
Nuisance complaints increased by 21 percent over 2019, and 52 percent were COVID-19-related. Of the 325 total nuisance complaints last year, only 12, or 3.7 percent, were deemed health code violations and orders to comply were issued.
The department conducted 686 food service inspections at 280 establishments and four temporary events, as well as 222 other environmental inspections, including hair salons, swimming pools, day cares, lead risks, septic permits and well permits.
Civitelli said the health department received a lot requests for help from restaurants that were navigating the COVID-19 restrictions and doing takeout service.
“We were still going out and answering their questions, throughout the whole time,” he said, “trying to help the operators in town that were open, that were allowed to open.”
‘In the public’
Between 2019 and 2020, the total number of inspections performed by the health department dropped from 1,012 to 686, or 28 percent.
Civitelli said this was due to restaurants and salons being closed a good part of the year.
“As soon as they reopened, we went right back in and got them done,” he said.
Septic inspections were the highest they’ve been in the last five years, as were B-100A inspections — site assessments for modification requests on properties with on-site sewage disposal.
Civitelli cited a couple of reasons for the increases.
When more people are home, and therefore using more water, it leads to more septic failures, but also more people were installing pools which requires inspection if there’s a septic system on the property, he said.
“It’s all pools, more or less,” he said. “…For those who are on septic systems, it required our sign offs, our site visits inspections.”
Food service complaints fell from an average of 34 over the last four years to 23 last year.
Civitelli said that was because a lot of places were closed and there wasn't any table service.
However, many of the COVID-19-related complaints were about situations at grocery stores and restaurants.
Lead complaints dropped from 19 in 2018 and 2019 down to one in 2020.
Civitelli said he attributes the dramatic decrease to fewer screenings for lead in children being performed.
“They weren't going to their physicians, because a lot of physicians were not seeing folks in office,” he said. “We anticipate that that was an anomaly at this point. We've started to see some more lead cases more recently, as physicians offices have started to open up again.”
The health department performed its routine inspection work in addition to the work of combating COVID-19 — coordinating vaccination clinics, performing contact tracing, answering questions from the public.
“The biggest takeaway from us this year,” Civitelli said, “is (that) we still had a high volume of inspections. We were still out in the field, because public health is in the public, right? So we have to be out there.”