Farmers can use their existing biosecurity expertise and protocol to help protect staff from COVID-19
As Canadians do their part to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, sterilization and social distancing are crucial in homes and essential workplaces that remain open. Livestock producers are no strangers to disease prevention, and can leverage that expertise to keep their barns and other facilities safe for workers.
“In animal agriculture we are used to biosecurity. … We’ve been exposed to outbreaks of emergent infectious diseases,” Dr. Lucas Pantaleon, a technical veterinary advisor for Ogena Solutions. Ogena Solutions provides biosecurity products and protocols to promote animal health.
Producers in Ontario have experience working to contain viruses like porcine epidemic diarrhea, and executing preparedness and preventative measures for foreign animal diseases like African swine fever, he said.
The discussion of preventing COVID-19 revolves around “a new threat. (We’re) talking about the human side and not the animal side of the equation,” he added. “We have to protect both.”
To do so, farmers should “continue to practice very good personal hygiene and hand washing. Don’t touch your face. Use alcohol-based hand sanitizer when hands are not soiled and soap and water are not available,” Pantaleon said.
Sanitizer should be at least 70 per cent alcohol, and be on your hands for a contact time of no less than 30 seconds, he added.
Surfaces should be similarly disinfected.
“Treat everything that we touch as potential vectors. We know that coronavirus can live on surfaces” like plastic and stainless steel for up to three days, Pantaleon said.
“Clean and disinfect surfaces often” using label directions on cleaning products, he explained. Respecting the required contact time for disinfection is important to ensure the elimination of COVID-19 or other viruses from the surface.
Social separation is also important – both on and off the farm.
“We might have to adapt the way we work at the farm not to have close contact (with others). Some functions on the office side can be performed at home,” Pantaleon said.
Farm employees should stay home if they’re sick. For workers who may life on the farm premises, this practice could involve self-isolation. Public Health Ontario has developed fact sheets on how to self-monitor and self-isolate if workers suspect they have contracted COVID-19.
“We need to be sure that when we are sick we don’t come to work, and communicate to workers the importance of that. … We are still in the midst of the flu and common cold season,” Pantaleon said. Regardless of the diagnosis, a sick employee should not come to work.
It may be prudent to develop a plan for employee absences. The COVID-19 pandemic may require workers to stay home for prolonged periods if they become ill, come into contact or are caring for someone who is ill, or need to take on additional childcare responsibilities due to school closures.
“It might be important to cross-train personnel so people can perform functions across the farm,” Pantaleon said.
As most producers probably already do, “restrict visitors at the farm” to essential personnel, Pantaleon added.
Of course, “we need to continue to monitor the health of our livestock and poultry. … (We should) be in constant contact with our veterinarians if anything happens with the health of our animals,” Pantaleon explained.
Technology may help limit social contact while still caring for animals.
Veterinarians can “use telehealth more to be in contact with our producers, rather than taking a trip to a farm or being at multiple farms,” Pantaleon explained. “We’ll continue to use technology to better interact between the producer and the veterinarian, and also maybe even use some of these technologies that are up and coming to better monitor the animals without so much human intervention.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things about the way we live, including the time we spend in the barn.
“This is going to be a new normal,” Pantaleon said. “The good thing is that farmers are used to biosecurity and infection prevention.”
A positive note is that the virus strain “appears to be very stable,” Pantaleon said. Coronavirus tends not to mutate and jump hosts as much as a virus like influenza does.
“There’s no evidence to my knowledge at this time” that this strain of coronavirus is a danger to livestock, he said.
Protecting the health and safety of the people working with livestock has always been important, but now the issue takes on a renewed urgency.
“Ultimately, we cannot forget about our team’s well-being. This is a very stressful situation,” Pantaleon said.
Farmers have experience overcoming stresses in their operations. Producers must do their best to protect the health and safety of workers, like how farmers constantly advocate for the health of their livestock.