Tuesday, July 23, 2024
HomeHealth & FitnessBiden Administration to Pay Dairy Farmers for Bird Flu Protective Measures

Biden Administration to Pay Dairy Farmers for Bird Flu Protective Measures

The Biden administration said on Friday that it would compensate dairy farmers for cooperating with its efforts to limit the spread of the bird flu virus, part of a series of expansive measures aimed at containing an outbreak.

The payment system amounted to one of the most forceful actions taken so far by agriculture officials who have raced to keep up with the spread of the virus among dairy cows. Farm owners have been reluctant to allow state and federal officials access to cows and workers exposed to or infected by the virus, and are fearful of the financial consequences of infected herds and contaminated milk.

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

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

“We’re now moving into a phase of equipping producers to reduce the risk” of wider spread, Tom Vilsack, the agriculture secretary, said at a news briefing on Friday, acknowledging the difficulties of reaching farmers.

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

Xavier Becerra, the health and human services secretary, added that the C.D.C. would dedicate $93 million to track 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,” Mr. Becerra said.

Still, officials continued to emphasize that the risk to humans from the bird flu virus remained low. Only one person has been confirmed to be infected with the virus, known as H5N1, though the number would most likely be higher if more dairy workers were tested.

More than 250 people exposed to the virus have been monitored, while 33 who developed flulike symptoms have been tested, according to a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Department.

The scope of the bird flu outbreak in cattle remains unclear, but the number of sick cows has gradually increased. More than 40 herds have been infected across nine states, according to an Agriculture Department update this week, including six new herds, four of which were in Michigan.

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

The payments to farmers will fall into five categories.

Dairy producers will be reimbursed as much as $10,000 for veterinary costs, including treating infected cows and collecting samples for testing, which can come with significant fees.

As much as $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 each month if they supply protective gear to workers and participate in a federal study of farms and their employees.

This week, the C.D.C. asked states to provide goggles, face shields and gloves to farms and to educate farm workers on the importance of protecting themselves from the virus. But in the states that have offered protective gear since the start of the outbreak, few farms have accepted it.

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

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

Dr. Davis said that the value of the indemnity payments would depend on the size of a farm and the technology it uses. Devising an indemnification program for tens of thousands of dairy producers, she said, was more complicated than one for the poultry industry, which is dominated by large food companies that have benefited from government payments.

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

Most infected cattle contract mild illness — with a loss of appetite and a low-grade fever — but may produce significantly less milk. Mr. Vilsack said on Friday that the Agriculture Department was looking to make available funds from an existing federal emergency assistance program to reimburse farms for reduced milk production.

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

Officials acknowledged that they could not compel farmers to test workers or cows more broadly, but said they hoped to encourage cooperation.

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

Federal officials are meeting regularly with advocacy organizations and other groups that represent farm workers “because they are a trusted linkage between us in public health, us in agriculture and the workers themselves,” Dr. Nirav Shah, the C.D.C.’s principal deputy director, said at the briefing.

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