Rural Route 4: Preparing for COVID-19 on the farm

Quad- City Times | By Jennifer Ewoldt | March 17, 2020

 This week, another lesser-known benefit of being a farmer has become obvious – isolation. We are blessed with lots of space to run around in, without coming into contact with any other humans. Now that the kids are home for spring break, this will be a huge benefit! There are still lots of chores to do and projects to keep us occupied. There is plenty of food in my cupboards and chest freezers, thanks to my dislike of running out of things in general. I coincidentally had made a trip to my local wholesale store for supplies just prior to the start of the mass hysteria over toilet paper. So far we are all healthy. If I didn’t have to go to work every day, we could happily sit here and isolate ourselves for weeks.

As a veterinarian, I am unable to telecommute. I still go to the hospital every day, and spend the day seeing patients and their owners. I hope we do not have to deal with COVID-19 in our staff, but all we can do is take the precautions necessary. It is the same for health professionals in human hospitals. We tend to wash our hands a lot in veterinary medicine anyway, so that helps.

I was also thinking that as veterinarians, we have a slightly different viewpoint on the current outbreak. In veterinary school, we take classes about population medicine, and much of large animal medicine involves disease control in populations. As a result, we get it. Damage control involves isolation, quarantine, disinfection, preventive measures, and (if one is available) vaccination or preventive treatment. Population medicine measures have allowed control of many diseases throughout the world in humans and animals, such as rabies, brucellosis, polio, tuberculosis, measles, and influenza to name a few.

Disease control in feedlots involves isolation of new groups from the general population for a period of time, to see if any of the cattle are going to get sick. They are vaccinated against the common respiratory pathogens that are passed from steer to steer in feedlots. Sick animals are pulled from the lot as soon as they are discovered by the expert pen riders, and moved to a hospital barn where they are treated.

In hog operations, it is often even more controlled because of the large numbers of animals kept together in buildings. Human employees have to shower in and shower out of many breeding operations to prevent them from bringing in diseases. Trucks are disinfected before moving from farm to farm. Veterinarians going from farm to farm must plan their days to visit the cleanest barns first, and work their way down to barns that may have diseases. We have to change clothes and disinfect boots between each stop.

Dog shelters are a similar problem. Large numbers of dogs in one place will easily transmit kennel cough, parvovirus, or canine influenza between themselves. Extensive disinfection plans are in place to prevent disease spread, or to slow it down if it gets in.

What is happening in the world right now is population medicine. We must control disease through isolation, quarantine, disinfection, and prevention. Does it make life a little more difficult? Perhaps. Is it inconvenient? Perhaps. In the long run, however, it will be beneficial for the large majority of the population. Take this time to enjoy life with your family or a few friends. Reconnect. Do that project you’ve been putting off. Get some rest. Clean the house. Turn off the TV and social media. Call to check in with your elderly neighbours and family. Share kindness. Remind yourself how blessed we are to live in a century with disinfectants, modern medicine, and a knowledge of hygiene and infectious disease.