Senate bill gives DEM more power to fight bird flu
PROVIDENCE — State lawmakers are set to pass new powers for Rhode Island’s 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 pets suspected of having an infectious or communicable disease, putting the measures of Rhode Island emergency on par with neighboring states and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Rhode Island’s neighbors in New England all have 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 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 does not have huge commercial poultry operations, there are still a number of producers in this state who have tens of thousands of birds. The last thing we want to see is the HPAI taking over Rhode Island and eliminating all those birds that would have a profound economic impact on them.
DEM has conducted surveillance tests on eight cohorts of birds since March. The department has relied on individual chicken farmers and breeders to alert authorities if anything appears suspicious in their flocks.
HPAI is particularly deadly to domestic birds, resulting in a 90-100% mortality rate for birds infected with the virus. But despite the high death rate, the disease is not expected to run out. The virus appears able to hang around in wild bird populations, with some waterfowl remaining healthy enough to carry the virus long distances in poultry farms and backyard flocks.
The highly contagious deadly disease means keeping free-range chickens indoors and depopulating entire flocks en masse. France, which has been battling the virus since late last year, has culled some 16 million chickens.
US farmers who are required to depopulate their herds are eligible for compensation from a federal compensation fund administered by the USDA. There was no depopulation in Rhode Island.
Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced the first human case of bird flu in the United States. The case was reported in a Colorado man participating in a prison labor release program who had been hired to depopulate herds with suspected HPAI cases. The man was reportedly not given adequate personal protective equipment for the job. The man’s only symptoms were fatigue and he was treated with antiviral medication.
HPAI was first detected in American wild birds in South Carolina in January.
In a prepared statement, Euer praised DEM officials “for being proactive with this legislation for the protection of animals, farms, and those with small herds 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 on May 12 in committee.