The Biden administration will pay dairy farmers for protective measures against avian flu

The Biden administration said Friday it will compensate dairy farmers for cooperating in its efforts to limit the spread of the avian flu virus, as part of a series of expansive measures aimed at containing the outbreak.

The payment system represents one of the most aggressive actions taken yet by agriculture officials as they raced to keep pace with the spread of the virus among dairy cows. Farm owners are reluctant to allow state and federal officials access to cows and workers exposed to or infected with the virus and fear the financial consequences of infected herds and contaminated milk.

Under the so-called compensation program, farms would receive up to $28,000 to protect workers and cover the costs of treating and testing sick cows. Producers may also receive payments for lost milk production on farms with confirmed cases of avian influenza.

Agricultural workers who agree to participate in government-led studies will also be compensated for their time.

“We are now entering a phase where producers are equipped to reduce the risk” of wider spread, Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said at a news conference on Friday, acknowledging the difficulties in reaching farmers.

The program was part of a broader federal push announced Friday to increase spending on the avian flu response. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is planning to increase testing capacity — a blind spot early in the coronavirus pandemic — and its evaluation of avian flu vaccines, should they be needed.

Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services, added that the CDC will dedicate $93 million to monitor the virus, including $34 million to expand testing and $29 million for surveillance of people exposed to the virus and their contacts.

The agency plans to invest $14 million to expand genetic sequencing and analysis of virus samples isolated from infected animals and people.

“We recognize the urgency of this situation,” Becerra said.

However, officials continued to stress that the risk to humans from the avian influenza virus remains low. Only one person has been confirmed to be infected with the virus, known as H5N1, although the number would most likely be higher if more dairy workers were tested.

According to a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 250 people exposed to the virus have been monitored, while 33 people who developed flu-like symptoms have been tested.

The extent of the avian influenza epidemic in cattle remains unclear, but the number of sick cows has gradually increased. According to a Department of Agriculture update this week, more than 40 herds have been infected in nine states, including six new herds, four of them in Michigan.

Vilsack suggested Friday that those new positive tests were not recent, adding that it was a “good thing” that no new states had reported cases. But he said farms with infected herds “are suffering and we want to make sure we are there to provide help.”

Payments to farmers will fall into five categories.

Dairy producers will be reimbursed up to $10,000 for veterinary costs, including treating infected cows and collecting samples for testing, which can result in significant expenses.

Up to $1,500 could go to farms to protect milk haulers, veterinarians and other workers who may be exposed to infected cows or contaminated milk.

Farms with infected herds could receive up to $2,000 a month if they provided protective equipment to workers and participated in a federal study of farms and their employees.

This week, the CDC asked states to provide goggles, face shields and gloves to farms and to educate farm workers about the importance of protecting themselves from the virus. But in states that have offered protective equipment since the outbreak began, few farms have accepted it.

The federal government will also pay dairy producers up to $2,000 a month to safely dispose of milk from infected cows. Milk contaminated by the virus poses a risk to other animals: about a dozen cats fed raw milk from infected cows have died.

“This is a good start,” said Dr. Meghan Davis, a veterinary epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It should have happened a month ago.”

Dr Davis said the value of compensation payments would depend on the size of the farm and the technology used. Devising a compensation program for tens of thousands of dairy producers, he said, was more complicated than that for the poultry industry, which is dominated by large food companies that have benefited from public payments.

“They own their own farms, they own their own cows, they make their own decisions,” Dr. Davis said of dairy farmers. “There is a lot more heterogeneity.”

Most infected cattle contract a mild illness – with loss of appetite and mild fever – but can produce much less milk. Mr. Vilsack said Friday that the Agriculture Department is looking to make funds available from an existing federal emergency assistance program to reimburse farms for reduced milk production.

The department also encourages states to limit herd movement within their borders as another way to reduce the spread of the virus. It has already mandated testing of lactating dairy cattle traveling between states and reporting positive cases.

Officials acknowledged they could not force farmers to test workers or cows more widely, but said they hoped to encourage cooperation.

“We can't necessarily mandate that a sample be provided, but we are obviously willing to accept samples that are voluntarily provided,” Vilsack said.

Federal officials meet regularly with advocacy organizations and other groups representing farmworkers “because they are a trusted link between us in public health, us in agriculture, and the workers themselves,” said Dr. Nirav Shah, the principal deputy director of the CDC. the briefing.

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