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Plant Protection Today - During the Pandemic, PPQ Innovates to Deliver Its Mission

During the Pandemic, PPQ Innovates to Deliver Its Mission
December 28, 2020

Cover Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay.

Plant Protection Remains Strong

By Greg Rosenthal

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, USDA’s Plant Protection and Quarantine (PPQ) program has been open for business. Our scientists, technical experts, and administrative professionals have continued to effectively fulfill our mission: safeguarding American agriculture and natural resources and facilitating safe trade. To deliver that mission while staying as healthy and safe as possible, employees in all corners of the organization have innovated and adapted.

Every day, PPQ has deployed about 900 to 1,000+ employees to the field. They’ve been conducting pest surveys, inspecting imported plant shipments, rearing sterile insects, and issuing plant health export documents (phytosanitary certificates). Our employees have continued important domestic pest programs to combat exotic fruit flies, spotted lanternfly, potato cyst nematode, and many others.

During the pandemic, PPQ eradicated a serious plant disease outbreak from U.S. greenhouses. We have effectively responded to unsolicited foreign seeds shipped to U.S. residents, a population of Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia) in Washington State, and a new detection of Asian longhorned beetle (Anoplophora glabripennis) in South Carolina. We have also launched our Offshore Greenhouse Certification Program.

Here’s just a smattering of examples of our employees’ innovations and adaptations that helped accomplish these successes. They all show that PPQ employees are driven to safeguard American agriculture and natural resources and facilitate safe trade—while protecting the health of our employees and the many people we serve.

Incident Commander Calvin Shuler (left) and Deputy Planning Section Chief Charlie Citrone (right) pack personal protective equipment at the COVID-19 Command Center to send to PPQ worksites.

Before the pandemic, PPQ recognized the need to take a proactive approach to emergency response, emphasizing planning and strong communication on all fronts. That’s where the PPQ Ready initiative comes in. Its goal is to create a culture of readiness within PPQ. Through timely and consistent email communication, it has better positioned us—as an agency and as individuals—to respond to and reduce the impact of emergencies and natural disasters.

In response to COVID-19, PPQ Ready transformed into an Incident Management Team. They operate under the Incident Command System—a multi-hazard, flexible management system that coordinates the activities of an emergency response. The team stays busy helping local work units and facilities:

  • Handle positive cases
  • Proceed to different occupancy phases when they meet Federal criteria
  • Collect and report data using an online dashboard with maps and COVID-19 data to provide a common operational picture of the situation for senior leaders
  • Distribute personal protective equipment to employees
  • Provide important information to employees via PPQ Ready email broadcasts

As of Nov. 1, the team has:

  • Submitted 593 facility readiness reports
  • Created 217 cleaning and disinfection plans for facilities
  • Prepared and distributed 100+ situation reports summarizing the current employee and facility status for leadership
  • Held 20+ calls and training sessions with PPQ’s Local Pandemic Coordinators, who monitor and oversee their facility’s response when an employee tests positive for COVID-19
  • Sent weekly email blasts with important COVID-19 information to employees
  • Provided large quantities of safety supplies to work units

COVID-19-related delays in foreign parcel services, and restrictions on non-essential domestic travel, have impacted the delivery of critical documents needed to clear imported shipments. In response, PPQ’s Quarantine Policy, Analysis, and Support (QPAS) and Phytosanitary Issues Management (PIM) adapted.

They agreed to temporarily accept electronic versions of plant health (phytosanitary) certificates sent via email or uploaded into U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Document Imaging System as proof of certification. PIM reached out to our international trading partners to gain their agreement. This adaptation facilitates safe trade and supports social distancing. In addition, this past September, QPAS and PIM finalized PPQ’s ability to transfer incoming electronic certificates to CBP, helping to expedite the clearance of imported commodities. To provide uniform guidance to our stakeholders, PPQ worked with APHIS’ Veterinary Services on a similar approach for foreign animal health certificates.

This team has also been at the forefront of ensuring that agricultural import requirements don’t delay the importation of medical supplies that support the U.S. response to COVID-19. These supplies include test kits and other critical items, many of which contain APHIS-regulated products. Since the beginning of the pandemic, QPAS staff have been in constant communication with APHIS Veterinary Services regulators and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to establish mechanisms that facilitate the entry of critical COVID-19 response supplies, while still safeguarding U.S. agriculture.

In fiscal year (FY) 2020, despite the pandemic, PPQ facilitated safe trade by:

  • Issuing 658,079 Federal phytosanitary (plant health) certificates directly or through authorized State and county cooperators to aid the export of U.S. plants and plant products to 206 international destinations
  • Issuing more than 30,000 import permits and regulatory guidance letters for plants and plant products and responding to over 9,800 inquiries about imports and plant health permits
  • Inspecting and clearing 5 billion pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables and 1.05 billion plants from 23 countries before they were shipped to the United States
  • Intercepting 56,653 pests found during U.S. Customs and Border Protection inspections of 25,315 ships and more than 1.4 million cargo, mail, and express carrier shipments and took quick action to prevent those of concern from entering the United States
  • Launching the Offshore Greenhouse Certification Program, giving U.S. producers a faster, more reliable supply chain of healthy plants while protecting our country from harmful pests

Staff at the Phoenix Rearing Facility follow COVID-19 protocols like social distancing and wearing face masks as they continue their essential work.

COVID-19 directly threatened the production of sterile navel orangeworm (NOW) moths at the Phoenix Rearing Facility in April 2020. Staff from PPQ and the Arizona Department of Agriculture (AZDA) were busy rearing and sterilizing NOW moths for the California pistachio industry. The goal of releasing sterile moths in the State’s orchards is to help control destructive NOW populations by reducing the reproduction rate. But after an AZDA employee was exposed to COVID-19, all State employees left the facility for 14 days, and PPQ employees for 3 days. That led to a production slowdown followed by a 3-day closure.

Before closing the facility, PPQ employees had to act fast to save the NOW egg layer colony and ensure it would still be there when they returned. They:

  • Created a strategy to collect surplus eggs from their last day of work, but slow egg development so the eggs would still be viable upon their return
  • Manipulated the environments in each production room with insects still in it, and with every on-site incubator, to ensure insect survival
  • Moved eggs or insects as needed to modify their development to match staff needs when they returned—preventing the need to destroy large portions of the egg layer colony 

And it worked. When PPQ employees returned, all the insects were healthy and in their proper places. The staff was able to maintain the egg layer colony at production level. Once the entire labor force returned, they restarted the production of insects for shipment to the field. 

“Because of the hard work and clever adjustments, the incident only set production shipments back a few weeks,” said Eoin Davis, Director of the Phoenix Rearing Facility. “Without the adjustments and the dedicated PPQ staff, the egg layer colony would also have been severely damaged, resulting in months of delay and disrupted production shipments to the field. I can’t tell you how proud I am of these employees and their dedication to PPQ’s mission.”

Imported plants and plant materials intended for planting are among the highest-risk agricultural products. If they enter our country infested or infected with an invasive pest or disease, they are already a living home for a destructive invader. That’s before they are even planted. The Miami Plant Inspection Station isn’t about to let their guard down during the pandemic. 

The station’s staff split into two teams to ensure staff could maintain appropriate social distancing while capitalizing on maximum telework. That strategy limits employee exposure to each other, stakeholders, and the overall environment, and it protects high-risk employees while they continue to make crucial contributions.

Need face coverings? Just bring in a sewing machine and make your own masks.

Employees don the masks and keep their social distance.

White inspection paper maintains a 6-foot social distancing buffer between inspectors.

In FY 2020, despite the pandemic, the Miami Plant Inspection Station: 

  • Processed more than 1 billion plant units processed
  • Processed 20,471 pest interceptions
  • Performed 9,710 treatments
  • Issued 9,899 export certifications 

In FY 2020, PPQ’s 16 plant inspection stations cleared 179,522 imported shipments containing over 1.8 billion plant units (cuttings, rooted plants, tissue culture, etc.) and nearly 797 tons of woody plant seeds and prevented entry of 6,786 quarantine-significant pests. 

“I continue to be amazed with the accomplishments of the PPQ family I have surrounding me here at the Miami Plant Inspection Station, and I marvel at the tremendous talents and resiliency they show whenever they are presented with a challenge,” said Louis Volpe, South Florida Area Director. “Whether it is a hurricane, an earthquake, a power outage, an illness, or even a worldwide pandemic, this family always finds a way to rally together and, as we like to say in Miami, ‘just make it happen.’ I cannot thank this staff enough for the sacrifices they have made and for making Miami a special place—thank you!”

Field Operations’ work in Puerto Rico is critical to protecting the island’s ecosystems and agriculture and safeguarding the U.S. mainland against the introduction of pests through passenger baggage or cargo. Just of few of the innovations in Puerto Rico—which port directors Jorge Torres and Albert Roche effectively implemented—include:

  • Rescheduling daily seed inspections for Monday, Wednesday, and Friday
  • Staggering employees’ tour of duties to maintain social distancing in the office
  • Providing one day of telework to certain employees so they can complete data entry and reports
  • Reaching out to stakeholders to determine how to better meet their needs to maintain adequate stakeholder service while reducing employee contact and travel
  • Replacing hard copies of shipping documents that employees “stamp and release” with electronic versions to reduce employee exposure from outside sources 

At the Predeparture Program at Aguadilla, Ponce, and Carolina airports (photos from Carolina):

Acrylic barriers were installed in all inspection areas. The barriers in the feeder area prevent any contact between passengers and employees.

The barrier has space for passengers to open and close their luggage. In addition, string barriers add an additional 3 feet of separation when PPQ employees inspect luggage.

This floor tape helps keep social distance between passengers and USDA employees.

“We took these actions to ensure the well-being of our employees and meet program needs even during such uncertain times,” said Leyinska Wiscovitch, Puerto Rico’s State Plant Health Director. “Our employees have agreed to participate in staggered schedules, and that has allowed those on the frontline to be home too and stay safe. I am very proud of my team.”

The crucial work of Field Operations in Texas continues despite COVID-19, especially Mexican fruit fly eradication activities.

The McAllen Work Unit sets up daily supply stations at a dedicated location. They include a solar battery charger for electronic equipment, an ice chest with ice-filled sealable plastic bags, 1-gallon water coolers provided for all trappers, vitamin C chewable tablets, buckets and soap for all trappers, hand sanitizer, cloth masks, and trapping supply boxes.

Marketing and Regulatory Programs IT Specialist Marco Osuna installed a Wi-Fi access point, allowing trappers to access the APHIS network from the parking lot, check out books for trapping, and sync data remotely. 

Employees hold meetings outside the office or in the field, with employees following the social distancing recommendations.

Some other Texas innovations include:

  • Establishing a volunteer sanitation schedule at the Houston Plant Inspection Station to ensure all surfaces are disinfected daily and weekly
  • Assigning one vehicle per trapper
  • Ensuring social distancing in lunch areas, with tables and chairs organized to ensure 6 feet between employees on lunch break
  • Placing supplies outside the office by lab personnel for employees to pick up in the morning, leaving specimens outside for lab personnel to retrieve in the afternoon, and disinfecting vials turned in as well when they are given back to re-use
  • Encouraging employees on temporary duty to go straight to the field and not come to the office if possible, and conduct check-ins remotely
  • Instructing UPS, FedEx, and all other carriers to place items on top of a table outside the office without entering the office, and disinfecting packages before opening and disposing of the boxes, which never enter the office
  • Placing a spill mat outside the front door with disinfectant and requiring everyone to disinfect footwear before entering the office
  • Providing clean water, buckets, and soap for employees to wash hands out in the field; also providing nitrile and latex gloves
  • Replacing the depleted disinfecting wipes supply by refilling the containers with shop towels and a mixture of soap and water for employees to use out in the field 

Nationwide in FY 2020, PPQ Conducted a total of 253 surveys with cooperators in 50 States and 3 territories and coordinated the response to 25 species that were new or re-introduced into the United States. 

“When it comes to challenges, our employees not only in Texas but across PPQ have a sense of true and committed responsibility because we are an emergency response organization,” said Texas State Plant Health Director Stuart Kuehn. “I also want to thank our Field Operations leadership, Deputy Administrator Osama El-Lissy, and APHIS Administrator Kevin Shea for connecting with our employees through town hall meetings, and for giving our supervisors and managers the support and confidence to get the job done. Without the commitment and dedication of our employees, the success of our programs would not be possible.”

Biological Science Lab Technician Caitlin McNab made enough reusable masks for all PPQ employees in Michigan.

PPQ and our cooperators need millions of tiny, stingless wasps to release into the environment to attack emerald ash borer (EAB) beetles. These invasive pests from Asia have destroyed tens of millions of U.S. ash trees. Our Brighton, MI, lab rears these wasps, packages them, and sends them all over the country for release. During the pandemic, they haven’t missed a beat. But they have implemented policies to keep their employees as safe and healthy as possible by:

  • Wearing gloves throughout the day and periodically washing/disinfecting the gloves
  • Limiting assembly line-style production where possible
  • Taking 15 minutes each afternoon to disinfect high-traffic areas 

Maintenance Mechanic Mike Bishop constructed mobile acrylic barriers to increase social distancing and decrease possibility of transmission.

“The EAB biocontrol staff did a phenomenal job resolving challenges associated with COVID-19,” said Supervisory Entomologist Ben Slager. “They came together as a team and developed strategies to keep everyone safe, mitigate exposure, and get their work done. Caitlin McNab was a standout—she sewed masks for everyone working here and at the State Plant Health Director’s office. These are challenging times, and I am proud to be working with this Brighton crew."

Exotic fruit flies can attack over 400 types of host plants that Florida grows. PPQ Florida’s Fruit Fly Exclusion and Detection (FFED) program is a critical tool for safeguarding Florida’s crops and economy. Its staff wasn’t going to let a pandemic halt its critical work. They continue to meet the mission’s goals.

Robin Dunivin (top left photo) volunteered to make cloth masks for employees at the Sterile Insect Release Facility in Sarasota, FL, as well as for other PPQ personnel in Florida.

 Supervisor Irene Shepherd steps in to cover for staff vacancies, making lure used in the FFED Program for Oriental fruit fly detection. She has been finding creative and alternative ways to support the 43 FFED field offices in Florida, making sure our staff have the survey supplies they need to conduct the mission.

FFED Technicians in Orlando conduct survey activities while complying with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Modifications made in the FFED program to limit personnel exposure to and spread of COVID-19:

  • Personnel work on staggered schedules, limiting exposure in the office.
  • Survey supply deliveries from the FFED Warehouse to 43 field offices, as well as courier services, have been modified to minimize face-to-face exposure.
  • If a survey specialist cannot safely service a site while maintaining Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or local health official mandates, they mark the site “Skipped – Inaccessible” in eTRAP, the program’s database, so the actual operational impact of this pandemic can be evaluated.
  • PPQ produced an outreach handout to help gain access to otherwise inaccessible areas, such as gated communities, parks, and other locations for survey work.

Modifications made at the Sterile Insect Release Facility in Sarasota:

  • Due to cancelation of passenger flights to Sarasota from Guatemala, where the sterile Medfly pupae are produced and shipped, the program started receiving shipments of pupae on cargo flights at the Miami airport. Courier services were necessary to get the shipments from Miami to Sarasota.
  • Also, because the cargo flights are limited, instead of receiving daily shipments of sterile Medfly pupae, the facility receives the pupae twice a week, forcing some operational scheduling changes at the facility. 

“We are extremely proud of all PPQ Florida personnel, who continue to persevere conducting essential duties during these challenging and unusual times,” said Abbie Fox, Director of PPQ’s Fruit Fly Exclusion and Detection Program. “Thanks to the dedication, due diligence, and positive attitude of our personnel, Florida domestic programs continue to meet our number one objective of safeguarding agriculture and natural resources.”

The United Nations declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health(IYPH) and then extended the celebration through July1, 2021. This worldwide campaign is promoting the value of our precious plant resources and the need to safeguard them against invasive pests. To celebrate IYPH, each month Plant Protection Today is highlighting how PPQ safeguards America’s agricultural and natural resources against invasive pests, and facilitates the safe trade of agricultural products. Read our article on IYPH to learn more—and how you can join this once-in-a-lifetime event!

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