Animal Health Matters: COVID-19 and icebergs

Russ Daly
Special to the Farm Forum

A farm call to check a couple of sick calves out of a pen of feedlot steers was a typical fall-time task during my days as a young veterinarian practicing in rural South Dakota. Pneumonia was the common diagnosis and quite treatable if caught early enough. I’d take the calves’ temperatures, listen to their lungs, decide on a treatment, and inject them with the medications. Job done.

But often, I’d find my job wasn’t done after all. The same farmer would call the next day, telling me the calves I treated were better, but now there were four more sick ones in the pen. Turns out, the first two calves just happened to be the most obvious indicators of a bigger problem. While I was treating them and declaring success, there were many more out in the pen — affected by the same illness yet not as obvious — that I should have paid attention to.

it’s the concept of the iceberg: what you can see is just a fraction of the larger problem. It applies really well to infectious diseases like pneumonia. For every feverish, panting calf, there’s three or four others affected by the same viruses or bacteria — they’re just not sick enough yet to be detected. If you don’t do something for those calves too, they’ll be feverish and panting tomorrow.

The concept may be trite, but powerful enough that I emphasize it to the students in my animal diseases course at SDSU. The iceberg concept is important because inapparent disease usually affects many more animals in a group than does obvious disease. Here’s where the real losses — poor weight gain and feed efficiency — mount to profoundly hit a producer in the pocketbook. Astute animal caretakers and veterinarians get this and address the group as a whole rather than only the problems they can see.

I see the iceberg concept at work as we deal with COVID-19. As our cases mount during recent weeks, a common refrain is that that was to be expected; while case counts are troubling, the main concern is the number of people hospitalized due to COVID-19. As long as our control methods keep hospitalization numbers below our facilities’ capacities, we’re OK.

But hospitalizations and deaths are just — you guessed it — the tip of the iceberg. Just like the populations I dealt with in practice, the most profound effects are below the surface. Following the calf pneumonia analogy, one could consider the bulk of the iceberg to be all the people sick but not hospitalized from COVID. But I’d suggest a broader look at the costs of this pandemic.

Think of the family whose breadwinner can’t go to work at the packing plant because they’re sick. Think of that same packing plant that has to slash production because they can’t field a whole shift of workers. Think of the healthcare workers who have to answer patients’ anxious questions surrounding testing, sampling, and results — while caring for sick patients to boot. Think of the health department workers going overtime to contact COVID patients and contacts, wrestling with their questions and fears. Think of students and their teachers, figuring out how to interact in this new world, and the small business having to shut its doors through no fault of its own.

Especially think of the costs of the outbreak to our relationships with our neighbors, as public health recommendations (wear a mask? don’t wear a mask?) become a basis for assigning labels to each other. This iceberg is way bigger than the number of people in the hospital.

To be clear, the reason the iceberg is there isn’t because of too many rules. The iceberg’s there because there’s a pandemic. The only way we can melt it into oblivion is through all of us doing the things we already know: Stay separated from people. Wear a mask when indoors and around other people (why not?). Wash your hands a lot. Stay home when you don’t feel well. Answer the phone when the health department calls.

Our leaders have a challenge steering our collective ship around this iceberg. Some passengers wonder why we’re going so far around — why can’t we come right up next to the iceberg? Others freak out when we get within miles of it. Keeping everyone happy while keeping the ship afloat is pretty much impossible, and we should understand the difficulty of their decisions.

We should all focus on melting the iceberg instead of just feeling good that the tip doesn’t look all that big.