COVID-19 adds extra wrinkle to biosecurity

COVID-19 has forced veterinarians to also think about human health as they plan biosecurity protocols for hog barns

Blaine Tully knows all about controlling infectious diseases and preventing them from spreading like wildfire among a vulnerable population.

But normally he isn’t doing it with people.

As a swine veterinarian he and many of his colleagues are now having to add humans to their bio-security and disease management training and monitoring because COVID-19 is not only a risk to the individual people working in barns, but also to the health of the animals relying upon those workers to take care of their needs.

“Think about what you need to get done every day on a farm … and what things are negotiable if you only have half your people coming in because the other half are in self -isolation,” said Tully, a vet and partner with Swine Health Professionals of Steinbach, Man.

“It’s a new era and we’re all feeling our way through it.”

Barns aren’t just filled with pigs. They are staffed by people. They are workplaces, social settings and often part of the home of farming families and their workers.

Few farm situations involve as many humans working closely together as a hog farm.

Red Deer swine veterinarian Egan Brockhoff of Prairie Swine Health Services said he and his colleagues have been building biosafety systems for the barns they advise.

“What do you do if you think you are sick? We’ve put together other really detailed protocols on what to do if you suspect you’re sick,” said Brockhoff, describing one element of the in-barn and on-farm systems vets like him have been constructing.

“We’re focusing a huge amount of effort on how to protect yourself and your family and your farm and, really, your community.”

Brockhoff and Tully are doing much of this remotely, since they are trying to minimize their physical interaction with farmers, barn workers and others who frequent farms. They don’t want to cause COVID-19 on a client’s farm.

They also don’t want to fall prey to the virus and then become too sick to advise other farmers.

Each is now spending much time conducting swine health management sessions with farmers and barn staff through teleconferences and video links, including through apps like Zoom.

Still, some human contact is inevitable.

“Obviously, there will be some sick animal responses that require boots-on-the-ground,” said Tully.

“We can’t do everything remotely.”

However, Tully is minimizing in-person meetings. He had attended an early March professional conference in the United States and arrived back to the government request to self-isolate, which he honoured. He then developed a cold, got tested and continued to self-isolate until the results came back.

His office’s staff are minimizing their human interactions too. The three office staff are working from home and only coming in an hour or two a day as necessary.

Farmers who need to drop off samples for lab analysis can use an overnight drop box, so don’t need to come into contact with any people.

Brockhoff has also been working remotely and his office is a ghost town as his colleagues and co-workers do the same.

Within barns it isn’t so easy, since most of the work is hands-on and can’t be done from a distance.

But sensible steps can minimize risk. For example, while the various teams in a barn probably can’t avoid some direct contact with each other, they don’t need to interact closely with the other teams. The farrowing team can ensure its coffee and lunch breaks don’t coincide with that of the breeding or gestation teams.

Each team can disinfect the lunch room and other joint facilities before and after their breaks.

Through steps like that, hog barns stand a good chance of avoiding the worst disruptions of COVID-19.

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