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With COVID-19, farmers urged to resist being the tough guy, veterinarian says

County fairs and state fair events could be threatened by pandemic.

INDIANOLA, Iowa -- If a pandemic hits the Corn Belt during the growing season, that’s one thing. But it’s planting season, and farmers have one eye on getting the crop in the field and one eye on keeping the new coronavirus away from their families.

Jim Lowe, college of veterinary medicine at University of Illinois, told visitors via a farmdoc daily webinar, Tuesday, that COVID-19 is one that needs everyone’s attention.

In many ways, the virus is serving as a déjà vu moment for the animal medical field. 

Oftentimes with animal diseases, it’s hard to tell which animals are infected vs. which animals are carrying the disease that’s spreading. 

Animals can be infected but not diseased. And that is the same situation occurring in humans with COVID-19.

As a result, the big challenge facing this pandemic is understanding case definition. 

In other words, when the number of COVID-19 cases are quoted, that refers to the number of individuals who have tested positive (diseased).

“But we know that is a gross underestimate of the people who are only infected with the virus in the country,” Lowe says. “So, we’ve got some real challenges with what the denominator is. The point being that all age groups can get infected and even now we are seeing that younger people are getting severely ill and passing away.”

While describing the virus, its impact on U.S. hospitals, its origin, its patterns on the population, etc., Lowe suggested that folks visit covidactnow.org for more detailed information.

The Difference with COVID-19

Normally, when a virus moves from animals to humans (known as zoonotic), it doesn’t adapt very well, doesn’t replicate, and pass from human to human. Therefore, the virus doesn’t spread much and is of very little threat.

Obviously, that is not the case with the new coronavirus, Lowe says.

Lowe says it’s helpful to understand that being diseased means that a human was exposed to a pathogen and that pathogen caused the person to have a response, getting sick.

People are exposed to pathogens and viruses everyday, but the immune systems handle that, for the most part.

Being infected, but not diseased, is especially important to understand with COVID-19.

“Someone who is infected and is shedding can be infecting others,” Lowe says. That is one of the big differences with this coronavirus and the first SARS outbreak (known as COV-1), also originating from China.”

That virus didn’t transmit very well between its hosts.

Also, it was easy to tell the people that if infected were also diseased, Lowe says.

“It’s very apparent with this year’s virus that we have a lot of infected people who are not diseased. Those infected people are infectious, meaning they can cause someone else to be infected, without knowing it,” Lowe explains.

For these reasons, it’s hard to know who to be around and not get infected.

“If I can’t figure out where all the infected people are, or, in my animal science profession, where all the infected pigs or cattle are located, my only choice is to stop movement,” Lowe says.

Control Strategies

When trying to control infectious diseases, veterinarians consider that every animal fits in one of three categories.

Either the animal is infected, resistant to infection, or susceptible to infection.

“To control the spread of the novel virus, i.e., COVID-19 coronavirus, the key is to keep the susceptibles away from the infected. If I don’t know who the infected are, it’s really hard to keep the susceptibles from being contacted,” Lowe says.

So, this is why farmers are urged to be careful as they go about their business of planting, chores, etc.

The virus can live on hard surfaces such as tools, pickup truck handles, steering wheels, etc. for three days. “Those of us in agriculture, there is a tendency to be the tough guy. It’s not a time for farmers to be that tough guy. If you get sick, after getting on the tractor to plant, get yourself isolated and don’t infect your family,” Lowe says.

Lowe added, “It’s a good idea to wipe off pickup truck handles with a sanitizer. Farmers have to go do their job, but they should wash their hands, wash their hands, and wash their hands.”

County and State Fairs

While people shouldn’t take this pandemic lightly, Lowe doesn’t believe living in fear is the answer, as the weeks and months go on.

While serving as a state fair veterinarian, Lowe sees it as too early to tell if the nation’s county and state fair celebrations will need to be canceled.

“I think it’s going to be touch and go. I would guess that we are going to be somewhat conservative much like the sporting events. The early state fairs could be off and I hate to even gather a guess at what could be happening by August. It’s either going to be better or worse,” Lowe says.

The good news is that there is zero evidence that this coronavirus infects anything other than human beings, he says.

Lowe encourages truck drivers to be cautious, as they have a lot of contact hauling livestock to packing plants and elsewhere.

Lowe joined the University of Illinois farmdoc experts, Tuesday, on a webinar focused on COVID-19 and U.S. agriculture. The webinar has been archived at farmdocdaily.illinois.edu. Look for the YouTube icon.

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