Answering Farmers’ Questions About the Pandemic in 2021

Dr. Gustavo Schuenemann, Professor and Extension Veterinarian, and Jeffrey Workman, Extension Program Coordinator, Department of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, The Ohio State University

COVID-19 has certainly dominated the headlines and many of our daily conversations since March, 2020. For those directly involved in production agriculture, our lives and routines may have been disrupted, but our daily business and responsibilities of farming and raising livestock never stopped. 

Times like these should remind everyone of the importance of having a robust food production system to ensure a nation’s food security. Below are the frequently asked questions we receive when visiting farms.

To answer these questions, we should look at the unbiased science. The challenge with looking at the science regarding COVID-19 is that portions of the science do not yet exist, or are not yet confirmed through replication and hard evidence. Time must pass in order to generate data. 

Science is evolving as researchers around the world continue to study and learn more to create unbiased new knowledge that informs all of us. Answering one research question may lead to several new research questions, or the correct answer backed by science is no longer relevant moving forward as the virus has changed. 

The “gold standard” that we typically use in the U.S. for sharing information and making decisions regarding public health are the recommendations coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC develops and changes their recommendations based on the available scientific data at any given time.

There are coronaviruses on my farm — is this the same as COVID-19? 

No, there are animal coronavirus infections that are caused by different strains of coronavirus, such as calf diarrhea, winter dysentery in cows, and bovine respiratory disease complex (shipping fever). To prevent losses, producers vaccinate their animals to protect against diseases caused by coronavirus.

When and how will the COVID-19 pandemic end? 

We can’t yet say exactly when the pandemic will end, but we do know that the pandemic will essentially be over when the individuals who make up the population achieve some level of immunity which ultimately stops the spread.

How do you get immunity? 

Immunity may be natural, or infection-induced, in which a person is infected with the virus and recovers. Immunity can also be vaccine-induced in which a vaccine helps the body to produce antibodies. Individuals who make up the population must achieve immunity to stop the spread and ultimately end the pandemic. 

What is herd immunity?

Herd (or group) immunity occurs when a large portion of the population (or herd) has some level of immunity to a virus. This means if someone who didn’t have enough immunity becomes exposed and infected, the likelihood of them passing it on to someone else is much less because the majority of their contacts in their surroundings already have immunity. 

When a virus infects an individual, the individual either recovers or succumbs, and the virus can only survive by spreading to another host individual. We see in other viruses, such as the measles and mumps, in which the US population already has herd immunity, there are occasional small, isolated outbreaks, but the virus is unable to develop into a pandemic. 

Is immunity a sure thing? 

Typically, immunity from most viruses is never 100%. For example, we achieve immunity from the chickenpox virus through natural infection or vaccination, but there are still a few cases of reinfection identified worldwide. Influenza (flu) viruses have the ability to mutate, adapt, change, and jump across species. 

As the flu virus changes, a person who has been vaccinated over several years, and also has some infection-induced immunity, may still become infected. However, they have some immunity that lessons the severity of their infection and results in a faster recovery. 

Why should I get vaccinated?

The safest way to achieve some degree of immunity against COVID-19 is through vaccination. The current COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be as high as 94% effective at preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations. The Delta variant is the newest strain of concern because it appears to be more contagious and severe than earlier strains of COVID-19. All indications thus far are that individuals who are fully vaccinated have protection from the Delta variant. It is important to keep in mind, if we learn that immunity wanes over time, or that the virus has significantly changed so that the current vaccine-induced immunity (or infection-induced immunity) is no longer effective, there could be recommendations for booster shots or other vaccine formulations at some point in the future. Individuals should choose whichever vaccine is available and they have the opportunity to receive. Current efficacy percentages reported are developed from subsets of people, and the true efficacy numbers will become much more valid and reliable as datasets become much larger and time passes. 

Keep in mind that the efficacy of the annual influenza vaccines is typically only 40 to 60%. All three COVID-19 vaccines have been found to be safe and effective. Everyone is biologically different and side effects vary. The reward (immunity or some degree of immunity from COVID-19) outweighs the risk (potential vaccine side effects). 

To conclude, the safest way to achieve immunity or some degree of immunity is by becoming fully vaccinated (individuals need both doses of a two-dose series). If an individual doesn’t achieve immunity that fully prevents infection, they may achieve a degree of immunity that decreases the severity of symptoms and duration. 

We all do personal risk assessments and consider the risk-benefit ratio each and every day without even thinking about it. There is risk in getting up in the morning and going to work. There is risk in driving a vehicle, operating machinery, flying on an airplane, and so on. Essentially everything we do in life has some degree of risk, but when individuals determine the benefit or reward outweighs the risk, they must carry on and move forward. Talk to your doctor or health care provider to discuss the best option for you and your family.