With bird flu still a significant problem in the Midwest, the East Coast is now bracing for migratory treks of waterfowl that could put numerous states with poultry farms and backyard chicken operations at risk of an outbreak.
Michael Darre, an extension poultry specialist for Connecticut and the rest of New England, and Elaine Lidholm, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, used identical language to describe the risk posed by birds migrating north after the end of winter — that it is just a matter of time before it reaches the East Coast.
"People up and down the East Coast are saying it's not a matter of if, but when," Lidholm said.
Ohio and Pennsylvania also could be affected by the H5N2 avian influenza strain contained in droppings from waterfowl. Since an outbreak in 1983 and 1984, Pennsylvania has investigated every avian influenza infection, state Veterinarian Craig Shultz said.
In Connecticut, agriculture officials see less of a problem at the state's large poultry processor where procedures and safeguards are in place than at smaller rural and urban neighborhood chicken operations, Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky said.
"This could affect backyard flocks, anyone who has poultry," he said.
Officials in eastern states are working together to track of reports of bird flu and ensure a quick response if evidence of the flu, such as sick birds, is sighted. Sick birds have discharge from their eyes and noses, and may have bodily swelling.
Darre is contacting as many as 1,000 small-flock owners about the flu and advising of biosecurity measures. Names are gleaned from records of vaccinations required of chickens taken to poultry shows, show birds transported to fairs and other destinations, he said.
It's a fraction of what Darre estimates in Connecticut as "several thousand" flocks of one to 15 birds.
Kathy Shea Mormino, who has 50 chickens on a portion of her 5-acre Suffield property and blogs about backyard chicken-keeping, said now is "a good time to educate people about what they always should be doing about their flock." She advises backyard chicken farmers to disinfect clothes, tools and equipment and to not install bird feeders that might attract carriers of the flu.
Chicken farms, tours of coops and livestock auctions also should be avoided, she said.
Washington state does not have a large poultry industry, said Hector Castro, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture. The state, which is home to backyard flocks, established four quarantines since the start of the year and flocks of primarily ducks were euthanized after many had already died, he said.
Lidholm said Virginia agriculture officials began planning for bird flu in 2002 after nearly 4.8 million birds were euthanized due to a large outbreak in six counties. Every three years, exercises have been conducted to ensure that officials know what do when a bird tests positive. "Everyone in the room knows what their response is," she said.
Darre said the problem could repeat itself in a few months.
"In the fall when they fly south we may get hit again," he said.