CNCounty News

Bird flu: What county leaders should know

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Key Takeaways

Four years after the COVID-19 pandemic began, our nation is once again monitoring a potential health threat. We know from recent experience that an absence of information creates a void where misinformation can flourish, so it’s important to understand – and communicate – what we know.

However, it’s just as important for officials to be open to what they don’t know. We recently wrote about this on our website – “Communicating About Uncertainty: This Messaging Can Help.”

As details about the threat of H5N1 bird flu continue to evolve, here is what we currently know.

What is bird flu?

Bird flu (also known as H5N1, HPAI or Avian Influenza) is a naturally occurring form of the flu virus. It is widespread in wild birds and poultry worldwide and has caused sporadic outbreaks in these animals over the years. Human cases of bird flu are rare and usually occur only after unprotected exposure to infected animals.

Over the past few months, the virus has been causing outbreaks in poultry and dairy cows in the United States, but the potential threat to humans is unclear.

What do we know about the bird flu outbreak?
  • The CDC has been monitoring cases of bird flu in wild birds and poultry since late 2021. This year, cases of bird flu were detected in cattle, which led the CDC to expand its monitoring to other farm animals.
  • As of June 4, there have been three confirmed cases in dairy workers who contracted the virus. No person-to-person spread has been detected.
  • Bird flu symptoms among humans have ranged from mild to severe, and can include conjunctivitis (pink eye), fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, body aches, headaches, fatigue and shortness of breath.
  • State and local public health agencies are working to minimize the risk of contracting bird flu among people who work closely with animals.
  • The nation’s food supply remains safe. Harmless traces of inactive virus have been detected in about 20% of milk samples from grocery stores, but the commercial milk supply of pasteurized milk is still safe for consumption, because the pasteurization process inactivates harmful bacteria and viruses. The FDA is monitoring the milk supply and has cautioned against the consumption of raw or unpasteurized milk or milk products. The USDA has detected the virus in some cows prior to slaughter and prevented them from entering the food supply. Among ground beef samples from retail outlets that have been tested, no virus has been found in any of them.
What we don’t know about the bird flu outbreak

We are still learning about the extent of the outbreak in both animals and humans, and testing among farmworkers has proven challenging. We also don’t know if the virus will mutate to be able to spread more easily between people.

Is bird flu the next COVID-19?

If the virus mutates to spread more easily among humans, it does have pandemic potential. But unlike COVID-19, H5N1 is a known entity. The U.S. government has already contracted with a vaccine manufacturer to produce a reserve supply of H5N1 vaccines.

What can county officials do?
  1. Share the facts: Many of your constituents probably have questions about how bird flu will affect their lives and livelihoods, and it’s important to have accurate, timely information close at hand. It’s also important to be open about what we don’t know.
  2. Connect with partners and stakeholders: Now is the time to meet with county health officials to understand how health departments are tracking and planning to respond to possible incidence of bird flu. In partnership with public health leaders, consider meeting with school leaders, business leaders, health care providers, and other leaders to discuss any emerging information.
  3. Plan for every scenario: Collaborate with community leaders and stakeholders to develop a county-specific plan, including how you will communicate. Understand who is most at risk (like dairy workers) and explore options for emergency sick leave so people can stay at home without worrying about providing for their families.
  4. Stay updated: The CDC posts regular bird flu updates on its website, and the Public Health Communications Collaborative offers plain-language communications resources on the virus. Keep an eye out for more updates like this from the de Beaumont Foundation.
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