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May 15, 2020

Farm veterinarians adjust to reduce COVID-19 risk

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This spring, veterinarians spent less time in barns and more time helping farm workers stay healthy.

Veterinary organizations, academic centers, and livestock industries also provided guidance on how to prevent transmission of the COVID-19 virus on farms and in agricultural communities. The guides emphasized reducing contact among farm workers, letting people onto farms only if their work is vital, and disinfecting surfaces such as keyboards and doorknobs.

Veterinarian at pig farmDr. Montserrat Torremorell from the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine and Dr. Jeff Bender of the university’s School of Public Health wrote in March that swine veterinarians are being asked to think like occupational health specialists who can help protect farm employees, their families, and other people who work in the pork production supply chain. Drs. Torremorell and Bender also noted, in an article from the university’s Swine Group, predictions that the pandemic would spread to rural communities, which tend to have older populations than cities and less access to health care.

It also states that veterinarians need to consider the potential that this coronavirus could affect pigs.

“Although there are no documented cases of COVID-19 in pigs, we need to recognize that viruses can be promiscuous,” the article states. “We need to protect the pigs.”

On April 12, Smithfield Foods announced an indefinite closure of the company’s production facility in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, citing COVID-19 infections. The plant employs 3,700 people and produces 4%-5% of U.S. pork, according to the announcement. The Washington Post reported April 16 that a series of closures and slowdowns reduced production among beef plants, and national production dropped 25% in one week.

Dr. Abbey Canon, director of public health and communications for the American Association of Swine Veterinarians, said in a message that swine veterinarians provide essential services, some of which can be performed without physical examinations and others that often can be provided with few or no other people around.

“We know some swine vets are implementing AASV’s guidelines and are visiting farms and evaluating animals without a caretaker present when they can do so safely and getting history before and following up by telephone or e-mail,” she wrote.

Farms, packing plants, and veterinary teaching hospitals staggered staffing to limit contact among employees and prepare in case a whole shift of employees required quarantine, Dr. Canon said. She also hopes farms use the Farm Crisis Operations Planning Tool—developed in part by the AASV and available through aasv.org—which helps farm operators consider how farms can maintain essential operations in emergencies.

“It’s a priority to make sure swine vets have the important information they need to stay healthy and continue meeting a critical need in public and animal health, and we’ll continue to provide guidance and more information as it becomes available,” Dr. Canon wrote.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services also created guidance for migrant farm workers and their employers. That document warns that people who have developed lung disease through exposure to agricultural pesticides and fungi are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

People with COVID-19 symptoms should live in separate rooms, with separate bathrooms, from healthy people, North Carolina’s guide states. Farms should take steps such as stocking surgical face masks, identifying nearby health care facilities that provide free or low-cost care to uninsured people, teaching workers about disease prevention, and notifying public health departments about illnesses.

Dr. Suzanne Dougherty, executive vice president of the American Association of Avian Pathologists, knew of poultry companies that reduced travel for their veterinarians, and some allowed visits to barns only for health emergencies. Poultry companies encouraged their veterinarians to work from home, she said, although she noted many often practice some telemedicine and likely found that transition easy.

Farm service technicians and managers often send photos of birds that died or necropsies, and diagnostic laboratories remained open though run by fewer people, she said.

Poultry companies also reduced contact among employees, and each company and facility maintained contingency plans in case the coronavirus spread among employees.

In late March, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners started surveying members on how the pandemic affected their practices.

Dr. K. Fred Gingrich II, executive director of the AABP, said bovine medicine has few routine or unnecessary procedures to eliminate. Some members told him they practiced physical distancing among people on farms and in the clinic, where possible. Others closed their store fronts to the public, as well as gave clients recommendations on ways to protect employees against transmission.

AABP leaders develop d a document, “Resources for cattle veterinarians regarding the COVID-19 outbreak.”

It states, “Cattle veterinarians and producers have a primary role in maintaining a safe, secure and stable food supply, therefore cattle veterinarians must maintain access to the clients and patients they serve even during the pandemic outbreak of COVID-19 while incorporating preventive measures to decrease the risk of infection to themselves and others.”

The document discourages hoarding of veterinary supplies, as well as notes state efforts to increase physical distancing and preserve medical supplies by discouraging elective veterinary procedures. And, like many guides, it encourages good hygiene, staying home when ill, maintaining physical distance among people, and allowing only essential visitors to work sites.

The AVMA, too, has put together resources on considerations for food animal and equine veterinarians during the COVID-19 pandemic, available at avma.org/coronavirus.