Chicken house

In this file photo from 2009, hens at a Lancaster County poultry operation chow down as their eggs move along a conveyor belt.

As avian flu moves ever closer to Pennsylvania, the state Department of Agriculture has been asking for additional funds to support its preparation efforts.

In the absence of a budget, Gov. Wolf’s office reported Wednesday that it has authorized $3.5 million for avian flu preparedness.

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“We did this through a waiver,” Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan said, explaining that the governor can direct unspent money that would otherwise have gone back to the general fund to specific departments as needed.

“This particular issue is one that’s very important to the governor,” Sheridan said, noting that Wolf has met with Ag Secretary Russell Redding to discuss avian flu preparedness.

Lancaster County is the top egg-laying hen county in the United States, and Redding has said that with cases confirmed within 150 miles of Pennsylvania, his department has to plan as if the virus will surface here.

In addition to the funding, Sheridan said, the Department of General Services is working to help the ag department address its staffing issues by using current state employees or leveraging existing state augmentation contracts.

Wolf’s office is also exploring emergency powers he might have if an outbreak were to occur here, Sheridan said.

Redding said the department’s preparations fall into three phases — planning, response and recovery — and the funding should be sufficient for the first two, which is what it’s concentrating on now.

“We believe that we’re pretty well staffed at the moment, but if we saw the outbreak of the scale that has hit Iowa or Minnesota, there would be a surge in our need,” Redding said.

The department didn’t just start planning; the national outbreak started in December, and Redding said preparations here have been months in the making. Those efforts continue every day, according to Redding; Pennsylvania is learning from what’s happening in states currently fighting outbreaks, and also from a devastating outbreak that occurred here in the 1980s.

“The big difference today is the size of these operations ahd the complexity of the systems that we're managing today,” he said.

Redding expressed appreciation for Wolf’s assistance and also said the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been an invaluable ally as the nation fights the current outbreaks. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey recently pressed for adequate continued funding for its efforts. Redding said he supports Casey’s push.

To date, Redding said, the USDA has covered all of the cleaning and disposal and recovery cost in other states that are affecting; he would like to see them continue to do that. There are also some staffing issues that are developing and need to be addressed; for instance, he said, the USDA has two poultry appraisers in Pennsylvania, and one of them is expected to retire soon.

Finally, he said, Pennsylvania would like to have state lab certified so it doesn’t have to wait for results from the USDA’s lab.