NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Veterinarians and testing labs in Tennessee are preparing for an epidemic.
The bird flu strain that wiped out flocks in the Midwest over the last six months may be heading to the Volunteer State.
The State Department of Agriculture is preparing as if an outbreak is imminent, because if it makes it to Tennessee, staff want to be ready.
“This is the biggest animal health disaster outbreak in U.S. History,” said State Veterinarian Dr. Charlie Hatcher.
Poultry is a billion dollar industry in Tennessee, but for Poultry Hollow Hatchery owner Judy Wood it's not just about the money.
To say she's affectionate for her birds barely pecks the surface.
“It's like having all these little kids but you don't have to put them through college,” she laughed.
Wood raises more than 35 breeds of chickens along with dozens of pheasants, turkeys and other birds and sells them to farms and individuals.
She’s very strict about their care and does not ever take a bird off property with plans to return, even to shows or fairs.
“You never know what you're gonna bring home. We just don't take our chickens anywhere,” she said.
She’s apprehensive because she knows staff with the state lab at the Dept. of Agriculture are bracing for the fall when it's likely infected birds will migrate south and land in Tennessee.
“Our laboratory capacity would have to increase four or five fold to handle an outbreak,” Dr. Hatcher said.
If this strain of avian flu decimates populations in Tennessee like it has in Minnesota and Iowa, poultry and egg prices could skyrocket.
And another fear is that this strain, which only affects birds, could mutate.
“Bird flu, human flu they could interact and it could mutate to form a superbug (that affects humans)and that's a big concern,” Dr. Hatcher said.
Judy's farm is open to the public and she’s already planning extra precautions for visitors. Vets say people can spread the virus on their car tires or their shoes.
“We'll probably start making people wear bags on their feet,” she said.
But she hopes the flu never reaches the Hollow where her livelihood and the loves of her life live in coops.
“I don't know what I'd do,” she said, “it’s a question I hope I never have to answer.”
Starting August 1st the State Vet is putting new regulations in place that force anyone bringing poultry into the state to show the birds tested negative in the last three weeks. Staff will also inspect health records of poultry at shows and fairs. And the department will host a workshop next month. It will also host a test run to make sure local response is ready in September.
Some local farms have already begun restricting people allowed on property.