A widespread avian influenza outbreak last year threatened the nation’s $48 billion poultry industry and the livelihood of 1.8 million people, infecting flocks in 15 states and posing a health risk to humans.
The Herculean emergency response and months-long management effort to contain and halt the rapid spread of this infectious disease was led by Dr. Burke Healey and his team at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
“This was the single largest animal disease outbreak in U.S. history and had the potential to devastate the whole poultry industry,” said Kevin Shea, administrator of the USDA’s inspection service.
“Burke Healey and his team prevented that and did so in a way that was quick, efficient and allowed us to maintain the trust of our state agencies, the poultry industry and our international partners,” Shea said.
First detected in captive wild birds in the Northwest, the avian influenza virus soon showed up in poultry in Minnesota and spread rapidly across a wide swath of the country during the spring and summer of 2015. Unchecked, it could have seriously affected the nation’s food supply and posed a significant problem for global food security.
Healey, a veterinarian, deployed incident management teams to Minnesota and California as soon as the virus surfaced. But within three weeks, the number of affected commercial flocks ballooned from 11 in six states to 89 in nine states.
“It got really big, really quickly,” Healey recalled. “When the influenza virus jumped to a major commercial facility in Iowa, I had one team on the bench to draw from. If there was a panic moment, that was it.”
That’s also when Healey’s organizational and management expertise—not to mention people skills—helped meet the challenge.
“The biggest obstacle was the initial coordination of standing up the team and getting our heads around the fact that this was so big,” said Healey, who worked with a team that included Jack Shere, Mia Torchetti, Carol Tuszynski, Steve Karli, Jon Zack and Patty Fox.
“We were facing 10 to 20 new cases on a given day and had to get our management teams in place with limited resources and capacity,” he said. “We also wanted to ensure that we were educating other organizations on the outbreak and response, and collaborating on our plans to identify better ways to get things done.”
As part of managing the emergency response, Healey mobilized thousands of people who carried out many complex activities: conducting surveillance and detecting sick animals, testing to confirm the disease, quarantining affected farms, euthanizing flocks, disposing of carcasses, cleaning and disinfecting to eliminate the virus, appraising flock value and compensating producers.
To do the job, the USDA deployed more than 600 of its own employees and more than 3,000 contract personnel, with Healey managing the entire process. The cost of the operations and compensation payments to the poultry producers totaled more than $800 million.
Healey not only deployed and coordinated the staffing, but he served as liaison between the agency and numerous other stakeholders, including state and local governments, industry representatives and producers worried about losing their livelihood.
“Healey faced tremendous pressure and many barriers and challenges, not the least being the competing interests of the groups involved,” said Jere Dick, associate administrator of USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
It took immense dedication, political savvy and personal sacrifice to lead the effort to contain the virus as the crisis mushroomed, Dick said, especially since “the disease was literally dropping from the sky.”
During the crisis, the USDA destroyed about 50 million birds at 232 sites. The country lost 10 percent of its egg-laying chickens but, Shea noted, without the efforts of Healey and his team, it could have been much worse.
Iowa’s egg-laying and turkey industries suffered great losses—32 million birds died—but poultry and allied industries could have lost up to $1 billion, said Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey, adding that Healey and his team helped producers get back on their feet by quickly appraising property losses and making indemnity payments.
Northey said Healey and his team were sensitive to “small producers who were at risk of losing their farms and were watching their property and animals euthanized to prevent the spread of a disease that no one can see.” They recognized that “what our producers needed at the end of the day was a familiar voice that they could get a hold of and get the answers they needed,” he added.
Healey said he is grateful for the support he received during the crisis and for the kind words that followed. “Usually when you are ordering the destruction of someone’s property, they don’t thank you for it,” said Healey. “In this case, they did. That means a lot.”