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Coronavirus and COVID-19: What is this world coming to?

By Don “Doc” Sanders

Sometimes I think my fellow Americans don’t use a bit of their “smarts.” In my April column I described the hysterical rush of consumers purchasing as much toilet paper as they could haul out in a shopping cart or two. Then, over spring break, college students flocked to Florida beaches in spite of calls to social distance and self-quarantine at home.

Florida officials made no effort to stem the tide of spring breakers and their lack of social distancing and their flouting of authority. Florida businesses raked in the bucks from students, with fully booked hotels, restaurants packed to the gills, and booze flowing like the Suwannee River.

The students’ attitude was “if I die of COVID-19, so be it. Eat, drink and be merry. You only live once.” But the students gave no thought about spreading the virus to their friends and families when they returned home. They had little risk themselves of more than a case of the “flu” from COVID-19. The risk to individuals over 60 years of age who they came in contact with, however, was huge by comparison.

Many people’s worlds have crashed. COVID-19 has taken the lives of loved ones, incapacitated others, and caused job losses. And social distancing and isolation have turned most people’s worlds upside down. There is little that I can write about this situation that you don’t already know.

COVID-19, as you may know, is the disease caused by what’s been referred to as the novel coronavirus — or more technically, SARS-CoV-2 — which belongs to a group of viruses called Coronaviridae. In the veterinary world, each coronavirus that has appeared has been identified as a pathogen. These coronaviruses continue to replicate, making a couple new mutations every month. Consequently, when the right combination of mutations occurs, we have a new member of Coronaviridae.

Since the late 1970s, veterinarians have diagnosed coronavirus, first in calves, and subsequently in pigs and other domestic food animals. In the 1980s coronavirus vaccines were developed for calves and pigs. These vaccination programs have eliminated most cases of coronavirus in animals.

And here’s an incident that got little coverage in the news: In 2013 porcine epidemic diarrhea (PED), then a new unknown viral disease from the Coronaviridae family, began infecting pigs in the U.S. The disease infected only newborn pigs and nursery pigs, from a day-old to 6 to 8 weeks of age.

Top-notch scientists identified the disease early, but similar to the slow response of many state governors to COVID-19, official state veterinarians responded slowly in developing a plan to quarantine infected swine barns. They didn’t take the threat seriously, so they never promulgated a state-by-state plan.

But you can be proud of Ohio’s state veterinarian, Dr. Tony Forshey. Early on, he pushed a plan to quarantine infected farms. His plan, though, was never executed. The remainder of the state veterinarian establishment and APHIS (federal veterinary and plant corps) pooh-poohed him, so the disease swept across the country. (I just divulged a story that few people know, so keep it mum.) The result was that over seven million baby pigs died in 2013. In the Corn Belt there were photos of farmers with the heart-breaking task of loading pickup trucks to overflowing with dead piglets for disposal.

The PED outbreak was traced back to mineral and feed purchases from — you guessed it — China. As a matter of fact, swine industry research led by a pre-eminent research veterinarian, Dr. Scott Dee of Minnesota, and his veterinarian Ph.D. grad student, Dr. Megan Niederwerder, showed that these seriously pathogenic viruses could be detected for up to 85 days in livestock feed and mineral packages from China. Wow! Isn’t it time we get back to producing some of these products ourselves?

Similar to the cavalier attitude of college students on spring break, state officials did nothing early on to contain PED. Their attitude was that if any farms became infected, the odds were that they would survive with just a mild case of the “flu.”

As I mentioned earlier, COVID-19 is more of a risk for older people. Now, I don’t want to characterize my wife, Kris, as being old (I want to keep my happy home), but she contracted COVID-19 in February and became very seriously ill.

Since her extended hospital stay, it has taken her a couple of months to fully recover. Before her illness she rode her bike 30 miles a couple times a week. Now she’s riding up to three miles a couple times a week and slowly improving.

I’m not saying to not take this disease seriously. But I believe that the public has become naïve. Many ask for government actions that will make them 100% safe from contracting COVID-19. I say, duh! There is nothing in life that is 100% safe. We have over 40,000 deaths on the highway each year, many of which are caused by careless or impaired drivers. Many people are up in arms about a disease that causes about 18.63 deaths per 100,000 people! (That is, excluding New York City area, which deserves special note. Statistics as of the last of April indicated that 52% of the U.S. COVID-19 deaths occurred there.)

Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started including probable COVID-19 deaths in the national death count — that is, deaths that are suspected as COVID-19, but without a confirmed positive test. There’s disagreement on the validity of doing this. Some say this more accurately reflects the death toll, while others question the practice for inaccurately adding to the count.

So, why did we close the whole country down over a couple of high-risk areas? We shouldn’t minimize the importance of maintaining safe distances, checking temperatures prior to a work shift, and wearing safety masks, appropriate clothing and disposable gloves. But I believe, we need to do those things and use selective quarantines in hot spots just like we should have done at the swine farms I mentioned.

Now is the time for common sense to take the lead. Maybe someday our leaders will learn.

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