Updated: Avian Flu Leads To State Emergency

Dayton, with Hartmann
Dayton, with Hartmann

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton declared a state of emergency Thursday as the number of poultry dead from an avian flu outbreak edges toward 3 million.

It is the first Minnesota agriculture emergency declaration state officials could recall, including Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, who has been involved in agriculture policy for decades. Emergencies often are declared after floods, tornadoes and other disasters.

Dayton’s executive order establishes a formal procedure for state and federal officials to work together in battling the H5N2 flu outbreak and makes available state personnel, facilities and other resources. It opens the possibility of calling out the National Guard to help, although Dayton emphasized that he has not activated guardsmen.

“We will do whatever is necessary…” Dayton said. “This is a rapidly moving target.”

The Minnesota Board of Animal Health on Thursday night announced more than 2.6 million birds have died from the flu or been euthanized to prevent the virus from spreading. They are from 46 farms in 16 counties.

For the first time since the flu made its Minnesota debut in Pope County early last month, a “backyard poultry flock” was reported infected; the rest have been commercial turkey operations. The board said a Pipestone County flock of 151 mixed poultry was confirmed with the flu.

Board officials said they are investigating other potential bird flu cases. They will not say where they are investigating and State Veterinarian Dr. Bill Hartmann, executive director of the board, said state law prohibits them from specifying where infected flocks are located.

Minnesota has 15 million turkeys in barns at any certain time, Frederickson said, so 3 million deaths are significant. However, state officials and turkey producers themselves have not been able to put a damage estimate on the outbreak and they publically remain optimistic.

Chicken flocks in Iowa, Wisconsin and elsewhere have been infected, and a Clay County, Minn., chicken farm is suspected. However, federal officials have yet to confirm the Clay County birds are sick.

Hartmann and chief federal veterinarian Dr. John Clifford have said chickens are more resistant to the flu strain than turkeys.

Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said he is happy that Dayton and other government officials have acted quickly.

“This has truly devastated turkey flocks in Kandiyohi County, but I want residents and farmers to know there are many talented individuals working seven days a week as hard as they can to contain this problem,” Baker said. “Thanks to their work, and the work of other federal, state and local health officials, our food supply remains safe and spread to humans remains extremely unlikely.”

“This does not represent a risk to the general public,” Kris Ehresmann of the Minnesota Health Department said, because there are no cases of H5N2 being transmitted from bird to human.

However, she said, the department is urging people who work with inflected flocks to take Tamiflu, a medicine designed to prevent a person from catching the virus. The department has checked 141 workers so far, with more than half taking the medicine, she said.

Ten workers showed flu-like symptoms, she added, but tested negative for having the illness.

Birds in infected flocks are not put into the food stream, Frederickson said.

Once federal officials confirm a flock is infected with bird flu, Hartmann said that the birds that did not die from the flu are euthanized and then composted for a month. Once composted, they can be spread over fields.

Farmers also may bury the birds with Board of Animal Health approval, he said.

With Thursday’s executive order, the state is opening an emergency operations center in St. Paul as the flu response coordination facility. A center already has been operating in Willmar, near many of the infected flocks, and work will continue there.

Dayton, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, U.S. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and other officials plan to be in the Willmar area Saturday, Dayton said, visiting affected farms and meeting with turkey producers.

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota praised Dayton for taking action and said she will meet with poultry producers in western Minnesota on Monday.

“This emergency declaration will trigger important new resources to help bolster efforts to contain the spread of avian flu,” Klobuchar said.

The executive order lasts until early next week, when the State Executive Council must approve any extension. The council, composed of statewide elected officials, can extend the emergency declaration for 30 days.

Dayton said that federal funds should provide much of the money needed.

The federal government has 134 workers in Minnesota dealing with bird flu and another 86 state employees are assigned to the case, Frederickson said.

Several other states are affected, especially those along wild fowl flyways, but none more than Minnesota. Minnesota is the largest turkey producer, with 46 million birds a year. It also produces 47 million chickens.

Hartmann said turkey producers are hoping for warmer weather.

“If you can get a week of 65 degrees or higher weather, it is enough to shut the virus down,” he said.

Scientists are looking into how the virus spreads, but ducks and geese migrating through the area are the prime suspects. Fecal matter is thought to be the main culprit, but specifically how it gets from the wild birds to turkeys and chickens is not known.

Hartmann watches Dayton
Hartmann watches Dayton