U.S. agriculture continues to function as the nation hunkers down to limit spread of COVID-19.
Even as farmers and ranchers produce food for the rest of us, they must protect their own families, employees and communities.
It's a balancing act that takes planning, says Dr. Heather Fowler, director of producer and public health for the National Pork Board.
Fowler was one of five featured speakers during an AgriSafe Network Webinar March 23. She discussed procedures farmers should take to protect themselves, their families, employees and livestock.
Agriculture is part of the nation's critical infrastructure, Fowler says, so farmers and ranchers are at work. But they are vulnerable and must take precautions.
"Focus on preparation for your organizations," she advises. "Be aware of the things you need to put in place."
That includes social distancing, even on farms that may be in relatively remote locations. She also advises organizations to look at planned meetings and events.
Recommended numbers for social gatherings, initially as high as 500, then 250, continue to drop. "It's time to cancel or postpone those events for at least eight weeks," she says.
"The goal is to flatten the curve of virus infections. I'm advising organizations to reduce the number to the fewest people together as possible.
"We must focus on the healthcare system capacity," she adds. "If that curve is too tall, we will not be able to meet the needs of individuals with severe disease, whether it's the number of beds, hospital space, or ventilators. Flattening this curve improves the chance that everyone gets the care they need, especially those with severe diseases."
How to prevent disease
Fowler says even though famers work in isolated areas, they still need to follow basic preventive measures to ensure the safety of themselves and their employees. The suggested protocol follows guidelines recommended for society at large and include:
• Wash your hands often, especially after touching contaminated surfaces and before eating. Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water.
• You can use hand sanitizer that's at least 60% alcohol.
• Avoid touching your face, especially nose, eyes and mouth.
• Stay home if you're sick or if you've been somewhere with an increased risk of infection.
• Seek medical care if you have common signs and symptoms related to this disease — fever, cough and shortness of breath. (The CDC has a great symptom checker: https://bit.ly/2wBfZPp)
• Call ahead. Don't run directly into the doctor's office. Don't linger in a doctor's office and possibly expose others or expose yourself to the disease. Call ahead and seek additional guidance from your healthcare provider as to what the next steps are.
If you do test positive:
• Quarantine, isolate yourself.
• If you have mild disease, you do not need to stay in the hospital.
• Separate yourself from others in the household.
• Other household members may consider self- quarantining for 14 days.
• Limit your contact with pets and other animals.
• Work with your local health officials and public health veterinarians to understand the next steps.
Fowler says, like any business, farmers and ranchers must consider the safety of their employees as well as the continuity of their business. She offers these recommendations:
• We encourage folks to make sure they have a safety plan for COVID-19 in place.
• Revisit sick leave policies.
• Consider a plan if schools close around your area.
• Have a stay at home order in place when employees are sick.
• Be prepared to revise and update plans as needed.
• Spread out the workforce to limit contact. Consider shifts, break time and arrival and departure times to limit contact.
COVID-19 and animals
Fowler, a public health veterinarian by training, discusses COVID-19 and animals.
This outbreak likely originated from bats and may have included an intermediate animal host such as the pangolin, so it does exist in animals. So far, however, livestock and other domestic animals or wildlife do not appear to be threatened. Consider:
• No evidence suggests that pets or other domestic species, including livestock, play any role in the transmission of this disease.
• We haven't had any instances in the United States of pets, or wildlife infection.
• State public health veterinarians are working to develop protocols on when to test animals and how to interpret results.
• No evidence suggests that this disease can be transmitted via food or food packaging. It is not considered a foodborne disease. Out of abundance of caution, however, the CDC has guidelines on its website.
Fowler says the EPA offers a list of disinfectants that may be effective against the virus (https://bit.ly/2UgQZWE).
She says the National Pork Board offers resources on its website, directing folks through the CDC or Johns Hopkins. "We do have some swine specific references we encourage you to check out.
"Also, reach out to your commodity groups, soybeans, cattleman's, and so on. They might have additional resources specific to you."
Here are useful links:
• Johns Hopkins https://bit.ly/39kFDVO
• National Pork Board https://www.pork.org/public-health/what-you-need-to-know-about-covid-19/
• YouTube https://bit.ly/2UzVTNw