Bird flu is in cows. Here’s what Georgia is doing to prepare

So far, Georgia has avoided any cases in cows or people. Cattle in nine other states have tested positive for the virus

A strain of avian influenza that has torn through poultry facilities and wild birds in the U.S. for more than two years recently made a surprising — and worrying — jump into dairy cattle.

Dozens of mammal species have become infected by the virus, known as H5N1, and tens of thousands of individual animals across at least 26 countries have been sickened or have died. But even for a virus that has consistently surprised virologists, cattle were not seen as a likely candidate for it to emerge. As of Thursday, the virus has been detected in 49 herds in nine states since March.

Georgia, however, has not reported any cases in cattle, nor in humans. The state’s powerhouse poultry industry, which produces more broiler chickens than any other in the country, has also mostly dodged the kinds of major outbreaks that have resulted in the deaths of more 90 million birds in commercial and backyard poultry flocks in the U.S.

Still, with a significant dairy industry, plus even larger beef and poultry interests, the potential arrival of the virus threatens Georgia’s economy and the health of residents.

Here’s what the state is — and isn’t — doing to keep the virus at bay.

Interstate testing rules

Georgia’s response is being spearheaded by two state agencies, which say they are working closely together to protect Georgians’ health and the state’s poultry, beef and dairy economy.

The Georgia Department of Agriculture (GDA) and its commissioner, Tyler Harper, are leading the food safety and animal health charge, while the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) is focused on human health.

On the agriculture side, the GDA has mostly stuck to the federal government’s requirements and guidance.

After weeks of recommending farmers minimize herd movement to avoid virus spread, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ordered on April 24 that all lactating dairy cattle test negative for H5N1 before being allowed to cross state lines. The required testing is conducted in the cattle’s state of origin. Lactating cows heading straight to slaughter do not need a negative test to travel.

Since the order took effect, Georgia has received 45 shipments of dairy cattle totaling 600 animals from Florida, Kentucky, Kansas, South Carolina, and Tennessee as of Thursday, said Matthew Agvent, a spokesman for the GDA. Of those shipments, just two came from Kansas, which is one of the nine states that has reported bird flu infections in dairy herds.

Georgia, which has an estimated 92,000 dairy cattle, has tested around 50 cows per week and has shipped fewer than 1,000 cows out of state since the requirements kicked in. None of the animals the state has screened have tested positive for the virus, Agvent said.

On May 10, amid reports farmers in some states have been reluctant to test cattle for fear that positive cases could lead to lost milk and money, the USDA announced a raft of new funding and other incentives for farmers affected by the virus. Impacted farms can now receive up to $2,000 per month to help pay for PPE and reimbursement for testing and veterinary support, among other assistance. But since Georgia has not reported any cases, its farmers are not yet eligible for the funding.

Experts have praised USDA for the interstate testing requirements, but warned that the country and state still do not have a good grasp on the scope of the outbreak in dairy cattle. Agriculture and health officials have said they believe the virus first infected cattle in December 2023.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reaffirmed that consumption of pasteurized milk is safe, but an earlier survey conducted in late April revealed about one in five samples of commercially available pasteurized milk contained inactive traces of the virus. Those fragments cannot cause infection, but their presence suggests the virus is more widespread on dairy farms than official case numbers show, perhaps spread by sick but asymptomatic animals.

On a press call about the USDA’s new actions to contain the virus, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the interstate testing requirements now in effect are a “mechanism for helping us determine whether or not ... there are asymptomatic cows who are still carrying the virus.”

Still, neither Georgia nor the federal government have required random testing of herds. Experts say screening more cattle, even those showing no signs of illness and not traveling, would illuminate the full extent of extent of asymptomatic spread.

“There’s not enough testing going on and more information is always valuable,” said Anice Lowen, a professor and virologist at Emory University.

Preparing for the worst

To date, there have only been two confirmed human cases of bird flu in the U.S. The most recent one occurred in April in a worker at a Texas dairy farm, whose symptoms manifested in a severe eye infection. The case represented the first known instance of cattle-to-human infection and raised concerns that the virus could mutate within cattle to develop efficient human-to-human infectivity.

The Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there could be more infections in individuals who work closely with farm and wild animals, but says it still believes the virus represents a low risk to the general population.

Experts say it is imperative to limit human exposure to the virus to prevent a worst-case scenario, like another pandemic.

In Georgia, DPH is the agency in charge of protecting public health and preparing for the possibility of an outbreak sickening people.

Georgia Department of Public Health Commissioner Kathleen Toomey speaks at the Georgia Capitol Building in Atlanta, on Monday, August 30, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

DPH has several roles, including managing human testing, monitoring exposed people and managing the state’s stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Since the current unprecedented spread began in poultry in 2022, DPH has quietly monitored 117 people for signs of the virus, Cherie Drenzek, the state epidemiologist, said Tuesday during a state Board of Public Health meeting. Those tracked were either first responders to one of the state’s few virus outbreaks in backyard and commercial poultry flocks, or farmworkers where the bird infections occurred.

Of those, fewer than 10 people were tested for H5N1 and none came back positive, said Nancy Nydam, a DPH spokeswoman. No human tests have been conducted in Georgia since the virus was discovered in cattle, she added.

The CDC has also recommended workers on dairy farms wear full PPE to avoid exposure to cows and their raw milk, which, in infected animals, has tested positive for high levels of the H5N1 virus. The CDC also recently urged state agencies to coordinate the supply of protective equipment.

DPH manages Georgia’s PPE stockpile, a supply “adequate to immediately respond to an outbreak of avian flu among agricultural workers,” Nydam said.

Immigrant communities

The U.S. agriculture industry is highly dependent on migrant and immigrant labor and Georgia is no exception, said Jodie Guest, a professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health.

Guest leads the Emory Farmworker Project, which for more than 20 years has brought health care and other services to farmworker communities in South Georgia.

There are many obstacles to providing public health information — or even basic health care — to these communities, from language barriers to transportation challenges from remote locations, Guest said. Farmworkers, who often work long hours for little pay to send money back to family in their home countries, can also be reluctant to report symptoms that could cause them to miss a paycheck.

Farmworkers hand-plant rows of watermelon while riding on a seat platform behind a tractor at the Sweet Dixie Melon farm in Tift County on March 19, 2019. CURTIS COMPTON / CCOMPTON@AJC.COM

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“Their work ethic is extreme and there’s a real hesitancy to complain about anything that would keep them out of work,” she said.

Many of these problems were laid bare during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the virus led to a drop in clinic visits among farmworkers — and communities struggled to get access to the vaccine.

Georgia DPH says it is working with its Department of Agriculture counterparts to make information about the H5N1 virus accessible for Georgia’s farming communities.

Nydam, the DPH spokeswoman, said the agency has and will continue to translate information into Spanish, Creole and other languages. She also said DPH would lean on relationships established with farmworker communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, Nydam reiterated that bird flu has not been found yet in a Georgia cattle herd.

“We continue to be acutely aware of this population and plan for them in our response efforts, should a positive herd be identified,” Nydam said.

Guest and her team will soon head out this summer for the first of two farmworker health clinics planned in South Georgia. While the Emory Farmworker Project does not work with dairy farms, she said she has briefed her students about potential symptoms of H5N1.

“Our suspicion will not be particularly high, but if we were to see things like (human) conjunctivitis, we will be looking for it (the bird flu virus),” Guest said.

Poultry and beef risks

The CDC says bird flu poses little risk now to the general public, but an outbreak among poultry would pose a major threat to Georgia’s $6.7 billion-dollar poultry industry and the state’s economy.

Georgia produces more broiler chickens than any other state in the country, but its poultry industry has so far escaped the virus, unlike other states, where outbreaks in commercial poultry facilities have necessitated the culling of tens of millions of birds.

Mike Giles, the president of the Georgia Poultry Foundation (GAPF), said biosecurity has always been important for raising chickens, but that the industry has stepped up outreach efforts since H5N1 arrived.

A file photo shows chickens roaming and clucking inside one of the many henhouses at a poultry facility in Nuevo, California, in November 2017. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Giles said the fundamentals of keeping chickens and workers healthy have not changed. He said it’s critical to “create a line of separation between the interior and exterior of poultry houses and disinfect anything that enters the poultry house.” GAPF has also advised producers to monitor for sick wild birds on their property and to clean up chicken feed spills that could attract unwanted guests.

Georgia’s commercial poultry is already routinely tested for bird flu, said Matthew Agvent, the GDA spokesman. Testing is conducted at multiple stages, including before slaughter and movement, with thousands of tests run each year through the Georgia Poultry Lab Network.

Georgia’s roughly 1 million head of beef cattle are another potential economic concern but there have been no cases of H5N1 reported among beef herds. Recent USDA testing has confirmed that commercial beef, with proper handling and cooking, is safe to eat.