Government

Senate Bill Gives DEM More Power to Combat Bird Flu

Rhode Island has yet to confirm a single case of highly pathogenic avian influenza, but its New England neighbors have. (Joanna Detz/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — State lawmakers are poised to pass new powers for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to combat animal disease.

Bill S2751, sponsored by Sen. Dawn Euer, D-Newport, allows DEM officials to enact quarantine zones to restrict the movement of domesticated animals under suspicion of having an infectious or communicable disease, putting Rhode Island’s emergency measures on par with neighboring states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Rhode Island’s New England neighbors have all confirmed cases of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) — bird flu — within their borders. While Rhode Island has yet to confirm a single case, environmental officials are confident it is in local wildlife.

“We hope it passes and we think it’s essential,” DEM public information chief Michael Healey said of the Senate bill. “Although Rhode Island doesn’t have enormous commercial poultry operations there’s still a number of producers in this state that have tens of thousands of birds. The last thing we want to see is HPAI get a grip in Rhode Island and wipe off all those birds that would have profound impacts on them economically.”

DEM has conducted surveillance testing on eight cohorts of birds since March. The department has relied on individual chicken producers and keepers to alert officials if something seems suspicious in their flocks.

HPAI is particularly deadly to domesticated birds, carrying a 90-100% mortality rate for birds infected with the virus. But despite the high mortality rate, the disease isn’t expected to burn out. The virus seems capable of hanging around in wild bird populations, with reportedly some waterfowl remaining healthy enough to carry the virus long distances into poultry farms and backyard flocks.

The highly contagious, deadly disease means keeping free-range chickens indoors, and mass depopulating of entire flocks. France, which have been combating the virus since late last year, has culled some 16 million chickens.

U.S. farmers who are required to depopulate their flocks are eligible for compensation from a federal indemnity fund run by the USDA. There have been no depopulations in Rhode Island.

Late last month the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first U.S. human case of bird flu. The case was reported in a Colorado man on a prison work-release program who had been hired to depopulate flocks with suspected cases of HPAI. The man reportedly was not given adequate personal protective equipment for the job. The man’s only symptoms were fatigue, and he was treated with antiviral medications.

HPAI was first detected in American wild birds in South Carolina in January.

In a prepared statement, Euer commended DEM officials “for being proactive with this legislation for the protection of animals, farms and those with small flocks in our state.”

Similar legislation was introduced in the House earlier this year by Rep. Brandon Potter, D-Cranston. The Senate version of the bill is expected to receive a vote May 12 in committee.

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