Bird flu crisis slows, focus now on recovery

Published 10:07 am Friday, May 22, 2015

It has been 6 days since a new case in Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota notched six straight days without a new case of bird flu on Thursday, and though state officials aren’t ready to say the outbreak is over, they’re beginning to stand down.

The first case of H5N2 in the Midwest was confirmed in early March at a Minnesota turkey farm, and the virus then spread to 88 farms in the country’s top turkey producing state, affecting nearly 8 million birds, mostly turkeys. But new cases have fallen off sharply and the focus is turning toward getting poultry farms back into production.

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“I wouldn’t go out on a limb to say that we’re done for the season, but I would say it’s been six days now since we’ve had a presumptive case and we are very optimistic that this trend will continue,” Minnesota Board of Animal Health spokeswoman Bethany Hahn said.

To be sure, the disease remains a threat. Iowa, the chief egg producer in the U.S., has reported 11 new probable outbreaks this week alone, raising its total cases to 63 and toll to over 25.5 million birds, mostly chickens. But no other Midwest states had reported new cases as of Thursday. Across the Midwest, the U.S. Department of Agriculture puts the loss at nearly 39 million birds.

Things have settled down enough that Minnesota’s Board of Animal Health stopped issuing daily updates unless it has new cases or other news. The state’s emergency operations center, which helped mobilize agencies to respond to new cases, is just partially activated now. While an incident manager remains on duty, the center is “certainly not as busy as it was,” said Bruce Gordon, spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.

And federal personnel assigned to the state’s crisis have fallen. Many came from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which had 139 responders in Minnesota last month; that was down to 40 by Wednesday, spokeswoman Joelle Hayden said.

Hahn said the first Minnesota farm that was affected, in Pope County, could resume production in a few weeks, with others following a few weeks later. The barns must get a thorough cleaning and disinfection and if all tests are negative, the barns go into 21 days of downtime as a precaution. Officials will then work with producers to determine when it’s safe to restock, Hayden said.

The slowdown hasn’t lightened the workload for Dr. Robert Porter and others at the University of Minnesota’s Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. They’ve conducted thousands of influenza tests and remain in emergency mode.

Porter said they tested about 250 samples from birds daily in mid-April, and still do about 220. Test numbers have dropped “only slightly” because producers within the control zones around infected farms still need their birds to test negative to get permission to send their birds and eggs to market, he said.

“These negatives are as important as the reported positive cases,” he explained.