Agriculture has by and large been deemed an essential business, including in Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order, as the United States and the rest of the world continue to adapt to guidelines put in place to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the disease cause by the virus SARS-CoV-2.
Ag producers and other in rural communities, however, can face specific challenges as they try to discern how to continue moving forward. Those challenges are what several experts tried to address March 23 in an AgriSafe webinar on what ag producers need to know about the disease.
In addition to the widely advised recommendations of social distancing, thorough and frequent hand washing and sanitizing, not touching your face, disinfecting surfaces and staying home when sick, there are several steps that ag producers can take to minimize disease spread and keep themselves and any employees healthy.
Jeff Bender, professor and director of the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center, School of Public Health, University of Minnesota, advised producers to have early morning “huddles” — via videoconferencing — to discuss tasks and potential problems; change work schedules to limit number of people coming in; use cell phones or video to communicate; and limit the number of people taking breaks at the same time.
Personal protective equipment, for the purposes of disease prevention, should be a “last resort,” Bender said, noting that health care workers are likely to need equipment like N95 masks more.
PPE used for on-the-job purposes, such as when working with grain, mold, etc., may become harder to come by, said Charlotte Halverson, clinical director, AgriSafe Network. The high demand for N95 masks, which are considered the minimal recommendation for health care worker protection, may give producers the opportunity to think about other PPE options that exist beyond N95 masks specifically, she said.
Mike Keenan, risk control manager for Gallagher National Risk Control, advised producers to keep other PPE that might normally be shared (e.g. a community collection of boots) separated or designated for individual employees only.
The best PPE, Halverson said, could be to get adequate nutrition, hydration and restorative sleep and rest in addition to following all social distancing recommendations.
If sick, producers should try to avoid contact with livestock, pets or any other domestic animals, Bender said, because while those animals haven’t been known to transmit COVID-19, people should want to avoid potential transmission to the animals.
Heather Fowler, director of producer and public health for the National Pork Board, said that sick employees should call ahead to their medical provider and take steps to protect others, under advisement from their local or state health department.
When it comes to insurance and potentially workers’ compensation, Keenan advised that it’s important to talk to a producer’s specific insurance carrier and broker about what policies and coverage they have specifically, but he noted that workers’ compensation usually only comes into play if the disease/illness is considered occupational.
Keenan also said that employers should train staff and hold them accountable for following implemented procedures and emphasized ensuring that staff know the reasons they need to follow any policies and practices put in place: to keep the employees healthy and because the staff is crucial to success.
In addition to the other concerns related to employment, Bender voiced concerns that the agricultural community may feel unduly safe because they’re already isolated; rural communities and farmers are generally older (and therefore potentially more susceptible to the disease); there is limited rural health care access; and farms may suffer from a limited workforce.
Ensuring that rural communities take care of their mental health at this time is also critical.
Due to factors like weather, trade and commodity prices, production agriculture is already under high levels of stress, Halverson said. COVID-19 could pile on even more stressors, such as impact on markets and the supply chain, access to service providers and animal care, ability to pay employees and prepare for spring, and pressure on family dynamics, she said.
People should be aware of cognitive or emotional changes in family, co-workers or neighbors that may indicate depression or suicidal thoughts, Halverson said, and if someone is in apparent crisis, they should call 911 immediately.
While they may not be enough to overcome stresses, developing some positive coping strategies, such as humor, seeking support, exercise, talking it out and relaxation, might help, Halverson said.
Regular social interaction, done safely (for example, virtual coffee visits), can also help, Bender said.
Keenan and Halverson both expressed a preference for the term “physical distance” over “social distance” because of the still present need for people to be able to socialize with each other somehow.
A wide array of online resources exist for ag producers regarding COVID-19. Among sites to consider are umash.umn.edu, osha.gov, cdc.gov, usda.gov and ruralhealthinfo.org. COVID-19 information for your area can also be obtained by calling 211, texting your zip code to TXT211 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
An archived version of the webinar is available online from AgriSafe’s Learning Lab. To view the webinar, interested parties must log in (guest accounts can be created).