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Bird flu has infected dairy farms in Idaho. Is the state prepared for an outbreak?
Bird flu has infected dairy farms in Idaho. Is the state prepared for an outbreak?

The bird flu virus has long been a problem in Idaho, plaguing the state’s poultry and waterfowl populations for years, but this year’s strain brings something new – it can infect cows.

Since cows on a Texas dairy farm in March marked the first case in the U.S. of a cow infected with H5N1, the newest strain of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that the virus has spread to 12 states, including Idaho. Dairy workers and public health officials are now wrestling with how to protect an industry worth billions of dollars to the state, according to the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.

Dairy cows from Cassia County were the first to become infected after coming into contact with cattle imported from Texas in March. The virus has now spread to at least 21 other dairy farms in Idaho – many of which had no contact with cattle from other states, according to the Department of Agriculture.

State officials and the dairy association told the Idaho Statesman that dairy farms are doing their best to contain the spread of H5N1.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to help dairy farms protect their workers and make sure they have the information at their fingertips,” Idaho State Epidemiologist Christine Hahn told the Statesman, “and can decide what’s really most important … (to) prevent potential spread of infection from one farm to another.”

Dairies struggle with losses due to H5N1

Cows infected with H5N1 can significantly impact dairy farms’ revenue. The hardest-hit dairies can lose up to 20 percent of their milk production for up to a month, Rick Naerebout, executive director of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, told the Statesman. The American Association of Bovine Practitioners estimates that H5N1 infections can cause a financial loss of up to $200 per cow.

But Idaho dairy farmers have so far been unwilling to report H5N1 cases and give regulators free access to their farms. That access could include “invasive” requests from the Department of Agriculture for nasal swabs and blood tests on workers and regular testing of cows, Naerebout said. He said Idaho dairy farmers are willing to provide anonymous data and analysis but do not want to be identified by name.

Farmers also have not yet received the compensation they were promised by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Naerebout added, which is partly why they are hesitant to disclose more information. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is required to compensate farmers for 90 percent of milk losses attributed to H5N1, but dairy farms in Idaho have not yet received any open claims for reimbursement of milk losses, Naerebout said.

Marissa Perry, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, told the Statesman by email that the agency is working to make the funds available soon. Naerebout declined to say how much compensation he expects dairy farms to receive.

“There has been little benefit to the dairy producers who have come forward and invited authorities to their dairies,” Naerebout told the Statesman. “Just because there is a hesitation in inviting federal authorities to our farms does not mean that dairy farmers are not doing the right thing and taking all necessary precautions to prevent spread to other dairies and their workers.”

Idaho responds to H5N1 cases

Hahn, the state epidemiologist, said the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is working with the Department of Agriculture and the Dairy Cattle Association to provide personal protective equipment. The Dairy Cattle Association has also helped provide protective equipment to its members through the National Stockpile, a national warehouse, Hahn said.

Scott Leibsle, Idaho’s state veterinarian, noted that many dairy workers were already wearing protective equipment before the reported H5N1 cases because cows often carry other viruses or bacteria.

Although there has not yet been a single positive human case in Idaho, infected workers are being offered the antiviral drug Tamiflu for free, Hahn said, which is recommended by the CDC. If workers know they have been exposed to the virus or believe they may be sick, they can contact their health department and provide a sample, Hahn told the Statesman. The sample is sent to a public health lab and results can be available within 24 hours.

But Idaho’s restrictions remain looser than in some other states. In Minnesota, for example, cattle shows are restricted during the height of the cattle show season. Cows must have a negative H5N1 test and a veterinarian’s note, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture said.

Most of Idaho’s H5N1 safety protocols, such as personal protective equipment, are recommendations rather than regulations.

“What the farm workers do is actually their business,” Hahn said.

What we know about bird flu

One obstacle to containing bird flu is the lack of information about how it is transmitted between cows. The virus spreads in birds through saliva, mucus and feces. According to the CDC, cows were probably first infected this way in March, namely through contaminated food and water sources. However, how the virus has spread since then is unclear.

“Although birds may still be spreading the virus, we’re still trying to figure it out,” Leibsle told the Statesman. “Is it coming from moving livestock, is the virus on your boots or tires or on equipment?”

To contain the spread in Idaho, identifying contamination risks and tightening personal protective equipment protocols are important, Leibsle said.

To better understand the virus’s spread, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has begun testing for H5N1 in wastewater samples, Hahn said. This testing method has gained popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic. H5N1 has shown up “a couple of times at one of the wastewater treatment plants in Boise,” Hahn said, though the agency has not yet identified the source of the particles.

Testing for H5N1 in wastewater could one day provide valuable information about the presence and spread of the virus and alert authorities to a possible outbreak, Hahn told the Statesman.

Should an outbreak occur, “we are much more confident than with COVID-19 that we could respond quickly if the first cases occur in humans,” Hahn said.

By Everly