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Michigan’s bird flu response unsettles residents

Michigan has launched a comprehensive response to rising bird flu cases across the state, leaving many of its dairy farmers fearful of the impacts on their businesses.

Increasingly strict regulations have blanketed some of the state’s small towns as it attempts to contain cases in cattle and humans that have spiked in recent months, according to Reuters. States across the nation are looking to Michigan and examining their response to the outbreak as a number of public health officials have begun to raise concerns about a possible pandemic.

The virus, a typically rare strain of influenza with early symptoms akin to the common cold and conjunctivitis, can carry a high mortality rate if exposed to humans. Four human cases have been confirmed in the United States, including two in Michigan, and all are in dairy workers.

Prior to 2024, cases of bird flu had never been reported in cows. However, beginning with Texas in March, 12 different states have reported infected cattle. Most cases in humans are a result of exposure to poultry, but with this influx of dairy farm cases, experts have grown worried about person-to-person transmission.

Restrictions and responses

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michigan cattle herds are the third most infected in the nation, behind Idaho and Colorado. In April alone, 6.5 million chickens in Michigan were killed due to outbreaks. To mitigate the damage, Michigan has required dairy farmers to disinfect their delivery trucks, keep detailed logs of the farmers’ visitors, and wear protective gear when milking their cows. President Joe Biden has further instructed that all farmers produce a negative test result if they are going to transport lactating cows across state lines.

Dairy farmers, on the other hand, are more and more hesitant to follow these regulations, fearing injury to their finances or freedom.

Brian DeMann, a farmer from Martin, Michigan, said he feels an eery similarity between bird flu restrictions and the state’s response to COVID-19. He wishes the regulations would simply be recommendations.

“Nobody knows if these things that we’re being told to do are going to stop it,” he told the outlet. “Just like in 2020, people didn’t like to be told what to do.”

Dairy cattle feed at a farm on March 31, 2017. Another Michigan dairy worker has been diagnosed with bird flu, the third of four human cases associated with an outbreak in U.S. dairy cows. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Hollowed-out communities

For the 13,000 residents of Ionia, Michigan, community is necessary for survival. When poultry from the state’s largest egg producer, Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, caught bird flu from cattle, a slew of painful layoffs corroded the nearby city. Small businesses in Ionia have taken the biggest hit, as local customers, now unemployed, have turned to cheaper, big-box stores such as Meijer or Walmart. Some have even left town, moving south or west in search of work.

Running a local farmer’s market, Alex Hanulcik has seen the impact on Ionia’s residents firsthand.

“I really feel for the employees,” he reportedly said. “They were blindsided.”

But as the virus swallows up employment, many dairy farmers are equally worried about its effects on their essential product: cattle. Doug Chapin, who owns a farm in Remus, Michigan, has expressed his concerns to employees on multiple occasions. In meetings, he often urges them to wear eye protection. Because this eyewear must be cleaned regularly to prevent an outbreak, many workers have been hesitant, despite his fears.

CLICK HERE TO READ MORE FROM THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER

In the coming months, Michiganders such as Chapin should expect further government efforts to curb the disease, including blood tests for dairy workers. The Ionia County Health Department has already begun instituting a symptom-tracking program that monitors thousands of residents with text messages three times a day.

“You’re thinking about [the virus] all the time,” Chapin told the outlet. His concern speaks for a vast majority of Michigan farmers who are unsure if these efforts will be able to return a sense of normalcy to their industry.

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