By Simon Edwards
What happens if a sole-charge farmer or farm/herd manager tests positive for COVID-19?
That question became very real with the recent surge of the disease in Auckland and the subsequent spread of cases to the Waikato.
An industry working group that includes Federated Farmers representation has been putting together a case for Community Self-Isolation Quarantine (CSIQ) on-farm for exactly that scenario. Federated Farmers national board member and COVID-19 spokesperson Chris Lewis says it’s clear from discussions to date that farmers who can show they already have a plan in place for such circumstances – and most importantly are double-vaccinated – stand a better chance of having an application for self-isolation on-farm considered.
It would be disruptive but probably manageable if a farmer or manager who tests positive for COVID is on a farm with a number of staff. The person can join Managed Isolation Quarantine (MIQ) and the rest of the team (assuming they test negative) can shoulder the farm task load of the missing person as best they can and carry on – perhaps in separate bubbles.
“But the industry has sole-charge farmers and managers up and down the country, many of them working in some pretty geographically remote areas,” Chris says.
The COVID positive farmer or farm manager may well be a primary child carer. And a farm with hundreds of animals can’t be left unsupervised while someone serves out a fortnight in MIQ. The animal welfare ramifications are significant.
“That sole charge farmer is likely to be the only person that knows well that property’s systems, equipment and stock needs. And the employment situation is so tight at the moment it may very well be impossible to find someone able to step in.”
Federated Farmers, DairyNZ, Deer Industry New Zealand (DINZ), NZ Pork, Poultry Industry Association New Zealand (PIANZ) and B+LNZ with MPI established an Industry Working Group to discuss these concerns and develop possible solutions that could be used to facilitate on-farm protocols and procedures for self- isolation and/or quarantine. Other sector groups, such as Dairy Companies Association of New Zealand, RST’s, New Zealand Veterinary Association, Road Transport Forum, and livestock businesses have been consulted for any protocols relevant to their contribution to the supply chain.
The final decision on any application for CSIQ rests with a District Health Board’s Medical Officer of Health (a DHB can have more than one MOoH).
Factors likely to be in favour of a ‘yes’ decision by the Medical Officer of Health include:
- Sole charge farmer – unique on farm knowledge
- Geographic isolation and can safely quarantine
- The farmer lives on farm and does not have to travel for work
- There is no risk to the farmer’s or any other person’s health by them staying on farm, including mandating adequate rest periods to maintain individual wellbeing.
- The farmer is fully vaccinated
It’s not a given that the MOoH will designate the farm as a farmer’s place of quarantine. Or S/he may designate a portion of the property (for example a dwelling on the farm) as the place of quarantine.
In deciding whether a case is permitted to remain at home, the MOoH would need to be sure that any required support is able to be delivered, there is access to testing requirements for contacts, and that the integrity of the quarantine/isolation ‘bubble’ can be maintained on a working farm that may involve others entering the property.
Julie Geange, Feds Team Leader Industry Policy, has been involved in the discussion of the self-isolation option from day one and believes there are three “triggers” likely to count against anyone seeking community self-isolation quarantine.
“The Medical Officer of Health is likely to take into account how the person became COVID positive. If he or she ignored Ministry of Health advice and put themselves in risky situations, it might be perceived they’re the kind of person less likely to abide by self-isolation rules and precautions.
“If you’ve had both of your COVID jabs, you have a higher chance of being allowed to stay on-farm rather than being put in managed isolation quarantine because if you’re vaccinated you’re less likely to suffer serious consequences from COVID, and there is a lower risk of you passing on the disease to others.”
Julie also believes Medical Officers of Health will be interested to see if farmers have some pre-planning in place, both for if they had to leave the farm and go into managed quarantine, and for how they’d manage under self-isolation on-farm.
“I think they’d view that sort of planning as demonstrating that the farmer can be trusted and are aware of the seriousness of the issues involved,” Julie said.
Each agriculture sector group is now creating a form with criteria tick boxes particular to their farm system that someone positive for COVID and seeking Community Self-Isolation Quarantine can offer to a Medical Officer of Health, that may assist them to make a decision.
The Industry Working Group is still working through the ramifications for Dairy Farmers of the Operational Code of Farm Dairies (NZCP1) should they, or a staff member test positive for COVID, and they have been involved in the milking of cows.
It may be easier for sheep and beef farmers, who (unless there are animal welfare issues) should keep animals on farm until the person who tested positive for COVID returns negative tests again. However, meat companies are very wary of potential disruption to processing and trade, if animals arrive at processing plants from farms where the farmer or staff have tested positive for COVID.