It was one part luck, one part quick response and one part lessons learned that brought Pennsylvania to the close of its first bird flu outbreak in more than 30 years, according to Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding.
The last positive case of highly pathogenic avian influenza in commercial poultry in Pennsylvania was detected June 2, and all control areas have been lifted as of July 27, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.
More than 4 million birds at commercial farms in Lancaster and Berks counties were culled since the first case was confirmed on April 15 in an effort to stop the spread of the disease, which has affected more than 40 million birds across 37 states, U.S. Department of Agriculture data shows.
Now, Redding said, they are trying to help the farms hit by the losses and prepare for the next wave that may come ashore in the fall. He announced the opening of the application period for the state’s HPAI Recovery Reimbursement Grant program July 27 at the Lewis Farm in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, a poultry farm in Lancaster County.
Heather Lewis, who manages the farm with her husband, Michael, said they were scheduled to get their next flock of chickens when the first case of avian influenza was found at a neighboring farm.
“We waited and waited, feeling rather helpless,” she said, during the press conference in front of their barns. “Plans got put on hold as we waited for what our future would look like. What we hoped would just be a few weeks turned into a few months.”
The state legislature allocated $31 million to avian flu response in the 2022-23 general fund budget. Of that, $25 million is going to the HPAI Recovery Reimbursement Grant program, which will reimburse farms and integrators for losses suffered from the outbreak, and $6 million is going to the state’s animal health and diagnostic laboratory systems.
“Our concern was obviously addressing the initial exposure, knowing that we’ve had 17 flocks that are out of business and have been without a paycheck for two and a half to three months,” Redding told Farm and Dairy, in an interview. “We want to get them back in business, but … remember we’ve got two more migrations here before this virus, according to the USDA veterinarians and state veterinarians, actually burns out.”
Response in three parts
The luck part was the time of year bird flu hit Pennsylvania. Redding said it happened later in the spring migration season for migratory waterfowl. This spring outbreak in Pennsylvania was contained to farms in south central Pennsylvania, the heart of the state’s poultry industry.
The second part was being prepared and acting quickly when tests came up positive. Highly pathogenic avian influenza is highly contagious and often fatal to domestic poultry. The only way to control preventatively cull all animals in an affected flock.
“We had baseline testing with every single flock and knowing that if there’s any deviation from that, there’s a problem,” Redding said.
When every second counted, it was critical to have multiple labs in state to perform the required testing for impacted farms. Instead of sending samples to the USDA lab in Ames, Iowa, and waiting two days for a response, Pennsylvania could test at one of its three Pennsylvania Animal Diagnostic Laboratory System labs and get results back that day and be able to act with full confidence.
The third part of the winning combination was having the U.S. Department of Agriculture backing the state’s response, with all the lessons the federal government learned from the 2015 outbreak that killed 50 million birds nationwide, Redding said. That includes assistance with depopulation, disposing of and composting culled birds, cleaning affected facilities and conducting surveillance in the surrounding area.
Dealing with losses
When a farm tested positive for bird flu, all birds had to be culled and the barns were to sit empty for 45 days. Farms within 10 kilometers of the affected farms, called the control zone, had to get permits and undergo testing to move poultry or poultry products out of the zone. As of July 14, all the HPAI control zones in Pennsylvania had been released.
For the affected farms to be released from quarantine, the facilities had to complete several rounds of clean-up and testing. Then, they could apply for repopulation permits. As of July 22, a dozen farms completed restocking agreements and four had begun restocking, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. After a farm restocks, there is even more testing.
The cost of all that testing, required by the USDA, was covered by the state department of agriculture, Redding said. It cost $1 million a month, he said. More testing was done since the start of the bird flu outbreak than had been done in two year’s time at the state’s labs.
A dozen of the farms that were hit by the bird flu have completed restocking agreements and some have already begun to restock.
Farms are starting to get back to normal, but it’s not just the flocks that tested positive that were impacted financially. Some flocks within the control or surveillance zone were unable to or chose not to restock their barns during the quarantine period.
“Some integrators decided not to take the risk of putting birds back into those surveillance zones, even if they could, because they were concerned about potential exposure,” he said.
Round one of the HPAI Recovery Reimbursement Grant program is now open to only poultry farmers and integrators and to only those premises located in the 3-kilometer infected zones as defined by the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s General Quarantine Order. The 91 impacted poultry farms that have been identified as part of the first round have received a direct mailing of the application this week. Round one applications are due Sept. 10.
Round two will be open to those who suffered losses in the Control Zones, the 10-kilometer perimeter around an infected, quarantined farm. Additional information will be shared about the second round when it becomes available on agriculture.pa.gov.
Losses up to $100,000 will be reimbursed at 100%. Losses of amounts over $100,000 may be reimbursed on a percentage basis, based on the number of applications received and available funding.
It will help with things not covered by the USDA and not covered by insurance, like mortgage interest, rent, utility payments and employee benefits, Redding said.
“It’s not going to make anyone whole, but it’ll help,” he said.
It’s less than 90 days until the fall migration could bring new cases of bird flu to commercial flocks in the state. Bird flu has been detected in 41 wild birds in counties all over Pennsylvania, the most recent reported on July 15.
That’s why the ban on poultry exhibition at county fairs was extended through the summer, he said. Additionally, the General Quarantine Order is still in place, enabling the state to place additional restrictions on HPAI-infected farms to control the spread of disease. And it’s why poultry producers big and small need to stay vigilant and do what they can to protect their flocks.
“This virus does not discriminate,” Redding said. “The first positive in Pennsylvania was a bald eagle, followed by wild ducks, followed by commercial poultry. It doesn’t care. Everyone’s got to be on guard.”
(Reporter Rachel Wagoner can be reached at email@example.com or 330-337-3419.)
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