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Bird flu keeps spreading in Virginia, killing geese in Hampton Roads

Chickens walk in a fenced pasture
Chickens walk in a fenced pasture at an organic farm near Waukon, Iowa, in 2015. Several geese in Hampton Roads were determined recently by state officials to have died of bird flu. (File photo: Charlie Neibergall/The Associated Press)

Local officials started getting calls about sick and dying geese in Norfolk and Virginia Beach late last month.

Wildlife rehabilitators took in a few dozen birds that died within a day or two. The state then sent some for lab testing. 

Soon it was confirmed: The geese had contracted the bird flu, more specifically a strain called H5N1 that’s been spreading since early this year. (Some deaths coincided with a sewage spill in Norfolk’s Knitting Mill Creek, which was determined to be unrelated.)

H5N1 is highly pathogenic, meaning it can cause severe disease in poultry. 

Gary Costanzo, migratory bird program manager for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources, said officials hoped the virus would die out over the summer.

“It kind of faded away a little bit in early spring,” he said. “But now it’s cropped back up again.”

Bird flu is always circulating, just like any virus that plagues people. But some strains don’t cause as much damage, Costanzo said. This one does. It first appeared in Canada in January and quickly spread down the East Coast and beyond.

There have been reports of dead birds in pockets throughout Virginia, Costanzo said, including the geese in Hampton Roads. Canada geese are somewhat more susceptible to the virus than other waterfowl, he said. 

According to a federal database, an American green-winged teal in Virginia Beach tested positive for the strain in February.

The bird flu is typically linked to waterfowl. But in areas around Richmond and Northern Virginia, vultures are falling ill as well, Costanzo said. The disease seems to spread among the scavengers at popular sites like landfills.

Though the avian influenza virus can live in humans and animals, the risk for people is very low.

Since the newest strain started circulating earlier this year, only one person has contracted the disease, he said — and that was a poultry worker directly working with infected chickens.

Other animals, too, can carry the disease without symptoms. That makes it hard for officials to prevent it — especially when those animals can fly long distances, Costanzo said. It’s also tough to get a sense of how many are infected.

“I suspect there are other birds dying that we don’t know about,” he said.

One of the biggest concerns when a new strain circulates is its potential to hurt the poultry industry. If a single chicken inside a plant is found to be infected, the whole population has to be wiped out.

Hobey Bauhan, president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, said that would have a devastating impact.

“It affects our economy, it affects farmers, it affects our food production system,” Bauhan said.

So far, that hasn’t happened in Virginia. The virus was found in a few backyard flocks, but not on a wide scale or at an industrial facility.

Bauhan said that’s not an accident. Poultry farms are using strict biosecurity measures to keep the flu out. Those include limiting access to facilities and wearing protective gear.

“You really need to have a line of separation between your poultry and anything else,” he said. “Because if you're walking around by a pond, you could come in contact with the feces of wild birds and then you go into your poultry operation again [and] you really present a significant risk.”

The last time a highly pathogenic strain passed through the country was 2015. 

State officials don’t respond to reports of dead birds unless five or more are found in a single location, Costanzo said. 

Labs around the country are also so backlogged that it’s not useful to send specimens right now, he said.

If you find a dead bird on your property, Costanzo recommended double-bagging the carcass and throwing it in the trash, using gloves. 

Read the original story on WHRO's website.