Health department committed to keeping community safe

November 14, 2018

LAUGHLIN — If there’s a way of getting sick, the Southern Nevada Health District has a department to address the possibility and to prevent residents from contracting illnesses.

Members of the Southern Nevada Health District recently held a town hall and explained what each department does to ensure health safety for Southern Nevada.

Chris Saxton, new environmental health director for SNHD, gave the “high level overview” of what the health district does and opted to have staff members get into the details of each department’s role.

“It’s actually pretty impressive to me what all the health district does environmental health-wise,” said Saxton. “In other districts we didn’t do as much.”

Saxon worked his way up from a regular inspector to director in Kansas City, Missouri, before relocating to El Paso, Texas.

Saxton outlined some of the programs SNHD covers such as pools, food inspection and more.

“Pools is one of the big ones,” said Saxton. “Out here in the desert we like our pools.”

Safe drinking water, water supply, solid waste, underground storage tanks relating to gas stations and similar businesses, and vector control addressing issues such as mosquitoes, are a few of the programs discussed.

“Food inspection is one of our biggest programs,” said Saxton. “And really food inspection is about food borne illness and preventing people from getting sick.”

Dante Merriweather, environmental health specialist for special programs, discussed what he and his staff do.

“We do body art, schools, childcare/daycare and institutions,” said Merriweather. “By institutions we mean campgrounds, detention centers, jails, it’s a sort of catch all. We’re a special group, an eclectic group.”

One of their more interesting responsibilities is body art, he said.

When people find out that’s one of his focuses at the department, they want to know more, Merriweather said.

“They are curious about what it entails,” he said.

Tattooing is an interesting industry because it’s changed and expanded so much in the last 20 years, he said, admitting to carrying some of the stereotypes that go with body art early in his career, but he’s learned so much since then.

May tattoo parlors have someone on staff who does permanent make up, which includes eyebrow tattooing, he said.

“There is also a process called micro-pigmentation, which is very interesting,” said Merriweather. “What happens is people who have balding areas due to genetics, medication from cancer treatments, they may have thinning hair and they fill it in with tattooing. I thought that would be strange but I’ve seen that process done, I’ve seen people with the finished product and it’s pretty amazing.”

The most basic reason the health department inspects tattoo parlors is to ensure the transmission of blood borne pathogens doesn’t occur, he said., ensuring safe and sanitary procedures are used.

When at a tattoo parlor inspection, Merriweather checks to make sure the packaging of the needles are good and not expired.

If the packages are expired that means it’s possible the needles are no longer sterile and should not be used, he explained.

Through his experiences, he met an interesting artist at an inspection at a tattoo convention in Laughlin.

“There was a gentleman here from San Diego who has the oldest tattoo shop in the country (according to the tattoo artist),” said Merriweather. “I believe him because he’s been tattooing since the 1940s.”

Merriweather said the artist looked like Gandalf, of the Lord of the Rings films, with a long beard and many of his own tattoos that have an older style including “Popeye,” “Bluto” and Tahitian girls.

The artist’s tattoo machine was much larger than those used today and the artist showed Merriweather how he cleaned it, Merriweather said.

That particular style of machine means needles are reused but they go through a special cleaning process to ensure they are safe to use again, Merriweather said. Machines today use disposable needles and are replaced, which is why the packaging shouldn’t be expired.

Schools are another aspect of what Merriweather does, he said.

“Schools are filled with children and anyone who has children knows children are neither safe nor sanitary,” he said jokingly.

The first thing he does when he goes to a school is to look at their health office, he said. That’s where the nurse or first aid safety assistant, FASA, is located.

A FASA helps handle some of the minor issues at school in place of a nurse. Schools tend to share nurses due to expense, Merriweather said.

He starts by asking if there’s been a pattern of illness, Merriweather said.

He will ask out if there’s been a recent episode of vomiting.

The reason for that question, Merriweather said, is because it’s important to determine if there’s a contagious illness at the school and if so, ensuring it was cleaned properly.

Merriweather’s being particularly cautious as of late due to a recent outbreak of norovirus, he said.

“Norovirus is notoriously difficult to get rid of,” said Merriweather. “The problem is the student goes home, they feel better, they come back but they’re still shedding the virus.”

The same goes for kitchens, he said. The department looks at the dishwasher, hand washing stations, sanitation procedures, food handling, an how they handle utensils.

Playgrounds are looked at for safety, ensuring there isn’t the potential for strangulation, laceration, gauging or deep wounds, Merriweather said.

All accidents can’t be prevented, children are going to have bumps and bruises, but the goal is to avoid anything possibly life changing, he said.

Ensuring children have access to water while out playing is another safety factor, Merriweather said.

Inspectors look for working water fountains particularly because with desert temperatures, children can get dehydrated playing.

Science classrooms and labs are also inspected, Merriweather said.

Child daycare centers are another area of inspection for the department.

“We take a great care and precautions when we do our inspections,” said Merriweather acknowledging younger children are even more susceptible to illness.

He looks at diaper changing areas and kitchen areas, ensuring the two do not meet.

“In instances like this, we have a highly susceptible population, so when you are doing things like diaper changing and feeding in the same facility, it is imperative you sanitize everything,” said Merriweather.

Hand washing was one of the constants throughout the presentation.

It’s common sense stuff but they are things as a society people tend to take for granted so it’s always a good reminder, Merriweather said.

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