How COVID-19 affected avian flu response in Carolinas

Responding to an avian influenza outbreak is an ordeal under any circumstance. But when the virus struck in North Carolina and South Carolina during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, animal health officials had to deal with a new set of challenges.

Roy Graber Headshot
(Budabar | Bigstock)
(Budabar | Bigstock)

Responding to an avian influenza outbreak is an ordeal under any circumstance. But when the virus struck in North Carolina and South Carolina during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, animal health officials had to deal with a new set of challenges.

In March and April, there were 11 commercial turkey farms in North Carolina and one commercial turkey farm in South Carolina that were affected by H7N3 low pathogenic avian influenza, involving nearly 305,000 turkeys. Two of the premises were breeding farms, while the other 10 farms raised turkeys for meat production.

There was also one commercial meat turkey farm in South Carolina that included more than 32,000 birds where H7N3 highly pathogenic avian influenza was confirmed.

Both states have since been declared free of avian influenza, but the added element of trying to avoid the spread of a human disease while also trying to eradicate an animal disease offered additional lessons, explained Mike Martin, director of poultry programs for the veterinary division of North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“COVID was definitively something that affected our operations,” Martin said while speaking during the Delmarva Poultry Industry (DPI) 55th National Meeting on Poultry Health, Processing, and Live Production  on September 29. The conference was held virtually.

Availability of supplies and services

Once the pandemic hit, it became more difficult to get biosecurity supplies for field operations, Martin said. This included personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 makss, gloves, coveralls, and even bleach.

Laboratory supplies were also hard to come by, including basic molecular supplies and plates.

Response team members from outside of are also had the additional worries of if they could travel by air or whether they should drive. There were also concerns about whether hotels would be open or have vacancies, or if restaurants would be operating so they could eat.

Adjustments in communication

Communication for the avian influenza response team also changed during the COVID-19 era.

“The whole structure for the incident command was more virtual than other instances. Some people very much missed that face to face interaction, but we did kind of limp through it through the beginning stages, trying to make sure everybody got their safety and operations information,” said Martin.

The limitations on face-to-face interactions led to some concerns as far as whether there was a clear separation of responsibilities, he added.

General COVID-19 anxieties

Those involved with the avian influenza response were filled with a “general concern and fear” of COVID-19. There were rising numbers of positive COVID-19 cases in Union and Anson counties, where some of the avian influenza cases occurred.

“It was a very different world,” Martin said, as people were wearing PPE in off-farm meetings when ordinarily they would not.

There was also a feeling of loneliness and isolation for some team members. Already having to be away from their families during the response, there were those who had to quarantine before returning home.

A few benefits

While there were many challenges, there were a few benefits to responding to an animal health event during a human health pandemic.

One was it got team members out and about during a time when they would have otherwise been staying mostly inside their homes.

” Some of the field staff felt that going into the field gave them a sense of normalcy and gave them something to do rather than just sit at home and worry about this human pandemic,” Martin said.

The virtual meeting format Martin mentioned earlier also had a benefit, because it gave some team members “good practice” for future virtual meetings, which some of their colleagues didn’t have.

There was also less of a distraction from the media, which traditionally wants to be well-informed during an animal disease outbreak.

“We were ready for the media to come at any time. We were ready to try to prepare for statements and everything, but COVID-19 really ruled the airwaves, and so as such, this event kind of blew away in the dark,” he said.

View our continuing coverage of the global avian influenza situation and the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

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