COVID-19: A biosecurity threat like nothing seen before

Drs. Montse Torremorell and Jeff Bender from the College of Veterinary Medicine and the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota share an updated document about biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As a result of COVID-19, veterinarians need to look at biosecurity in new ways. As practitioners we have to focus on protecting pigs and maintaining the economic viability of the farm. We are trained to deal with zoonotic diseases with a primary goal of protecting ourselves, our clients, and the food supply chain. Yet, now we are being asked to think more broadly, more holistically as an occupational (One Health) specialist, thinking about the health of farm employees, their families, and everyone who is part of the pork production chain. Without healthy workers, pigs’ health and well-being will suffer, not to say the producers themselves, the workers and all allied industries. Ensuring the continued operation of swine farms, and allied industries, is a national priority, and an obligation. This is also a part of the health and viability of our rural communities.

In just three months, COVID-19 disease, caused by SARS-CoV-2, a betacoronavirus, is bringing the world to a halt. First reported in China in December 2019, SARS-CoV-2 has spread globally and is now a pandemic. COVID-19 causes respiratory disease characterized by cough, fever, shortness of breath, and in a number of patients can lead to severe pneumonia and death. Severe cases are reported in older individuals often with underlying health conditions, although everybody can be affected. As of March 24, 2020 COVID-19 has been identified in 372, 757 people and killed over 16,231 (WHO – With these numbers, one of the main challenges is the overwhelming of limited resources of our health care systems.  Yet, the main challenge has been in the larger cities.  This is likely to shift over the next few weeks to our rural communities.  Our rural communities tend to have older individuals (i.e. average age of farmers in the U.S. is 58 years), diminishing access to healthcare, and limited number of employees. Many of these employees are immigrant workers. The impact on our agricultural sector could be dramatic, not only on the farm but all the allied industries that support those farms.  We need to prepare.

So, what can we do about it?

Until we have an effective vaccine in place, we must focus on limiting/preventing exposure. This can be challenging since this is a person-to-person disease, but there are things we can do.

  1. Practice basic biosecurity protocols to prevent infection at the individual level

General biosecurity protocols are the first line of defense and likely need to be enhanced to provide protection to employees, producers, and their families. These should include:

  • Don’t come to work ill
  • Wash hands/cover cough
  • Try to avoid touching your face, especially with unwashed hands
  • Regularly clean and disinfect high contact surfaces such as keyboards, common desk spaces, door knobs, faucets, etc.
  • Clean high traffic areas often such as showers, breakroom, kitchen, office, dispensaries, and ensure that disinfection happens at the end of the day every day
  1. Practice social distancing to prevent infection of the community

By protecting the community, we will protect ourselves, and everybody else essential to the day-to-day operations. So, what does “social distancing” look like on livestock/poultry operations?

Each farm operation is different, but here are some general guidelines:

  • Limit number of people who come to work to essential personnel or personnel performing essential activities
  • Try to maintain 6 feet separation in the working environment (not always easy to do)
  • Try to do as much as possible on the phone or by video conferencing
  • Consider different staffing schedules to limit the number of workers on the operation at one time.  Maybe someone at the feed mill, someone hauling pigs, and another fixing equipment.
    • Stagger arrival of workers to the farm so they do not congregate in the common air spaces (e.g. entry hallways, showers or breakrooms).
  • Plan break times so that only few workers are in the same room at the same time while trying to maintain at least 6 feet separation. 
  • Limit number of face-to-face meetings and consider alternatives such as conference calls, texts or email.
  • Limit interactions with people outside of work:
    • Do not carpool or limit carpooling in essential situations
    • Try to limit travel to essential locations (i.e. grocery store or pharmacy)
    • Avoid large crowds (e.g. church, shopping centers and entertainment events)
    • Restrict domestic or international travel (i.e. vacations) during the height of the pandemic
  1. Protect the pigs

Although there are no documented cases of COVID-19 in pigs, we need to recognize that viruses can be promiscuous.  We need to protect the pigs.  So keep ill employees at home.  This is sometimes difficult to do if there are limited number of employees that can do the tasks or if the individual thinks he only has a cold. Even individuals with mild symptoms can transmit COVID-19.  So, farm supervisors need to upfront consider sick leave policies and comfort in reporting any illnesses.  This is our best way to keep farm workers, their families and others affiliated with the farm production chain, healthy and safe.

We must “lead well” and think beyond the farm.

The Department of Homeland Security made it clear that protecting the food supply and its workers is essential to maintaining American livelihood especially in this time of crisis. As veterinarians, we need to take a “team approach” to revise our biosecurity protocols, consider the health of the workforce, and how it interrelates with the broader farm system and our rural communities. If we do not take action, the impact to our communities will be significant.

We all must do our part by protecting workers and our rural communities.

So engage our producers, workers, farm families…encourage them to stay home if they are sick,…tell them to wash their hands, practice social distancing and…stay calm.


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