The disease causing the greatest concern in the pork industry today is not a swine disease but a human one — coronavirus disease-19 (COVID-19).
As this nasty respiratory illness spreads throughout the US, pork producers and veterinarians realize the devastating impact it could have on a hog farm if the workforce becomes sick.
Fortunately, many producers can use the lessons learned from another coronavirus that affected their business. Eight years ago, porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED) prompted many hog farms to improve biosecurity and prevent future outbreaks of PED.
“Swine producers already have a pretty good grasp on biosecurity,” reported Brad Schmitt, DVM, veterinarian with Four Star Veterinary Service, Rushville, Indiana. “They’ve been doing this kind of thing for years.
“But we have to stay vigilant because if one [employee] has it, it’s not long before others get it, and there will be a labor shortage,” he added.
Social distancing at work
A number of new procedures are being implemented on many hog farms to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 among employees.
Social distancing is probably the most popular one used to limit contact with other workers. Employees take turns on breaks and remain 6 feet away from each other, according to Brittney Scales, DVM, Four Star Veterinary Service in Mexico, Indiana. One farm added a breakroom to help provide more space for social distancing.
“Employees also are encouraged to stay home if sick,” Scales said. “Some farms have a system that if an employee becomes sick and needs to stay home, they will be paid as usual for up to 3 weeks. After that, the policy will be reviewed.”
Some farms ask employees to check their own temperature before showering into a hog facility. If they have a fever, they are asked to stay home for 2 weeks.
“Clients are doing the best they can to continue to do business as normal as possible and to provide for their employees,” Scales added. “First and foremost, they want to keep everyone healthy.”
Swine veterinary clinics also initiated biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among employees.
“In the large-animal practice, the first thing we put into place was lock the front door and post a phone number for clients to call and place an order,” noted Daniel Hendrickson, DVM, Four Star Veterinary Clinic in Farmland, Indiana. “We bring orders out to them.
“We’ve slowed down our visits to farms, too,” he continued “We aren’t doing regular, monthly herd checks unless something major is going on. But we are still doing necessary surgery.”
Hendrickson also is involved with a small-animal practice, and they eliminated client visits to the office, too. Technicians dressed in personal protective equipment pick up pets from client vehicles and bring the pets into the office for a check-up. If there are concerns, the veterinarian will go to the car and visit with the owner.
Hendrickson has noticed some clients are concerned about COVID-19 affecting animal supplies. “We are seeing some clients keep a couple weeks ahead of supplies, more because of what may happen if distribution companies become short-staffed,” he added.
Move to telemedicine
COVID-19 is forcing some veterinarians to use telemedicine with clients, Scales said. Clients send photos and video of their animals’ health issues and veterinarians try to determine treatments. It’s one way to prevent the spread of both human and animal disease.
When Scales does go to a farm, she wears a mask and personal protection equipment. But visits are getting fewer.
“We are still doing the health VCPR (veterinarian-client-patient relationship), but the rules are relaxed some to help get through this time,” Scales explained.
“Clients are doing the best they can to continue to do business as normal and to provide for their employees,” she added. “And first and foremost, they want to keep everyone healthy.”
To find more information about strategies to handle COVID-19 in hog operations, visit www.pork.org and click on the COVID-19 Resources for Pork Producers page.
Included on this resource page are many links for answers about labor regulations, stay-at-home orders by state and documents to help plan for a COVID-19 outbreak. It also includes Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations for preventing COVID-19.