By P.J. Huffstutter
CHICAGO, May 30 (Reuters) - Indiana is training 300 prisoners to kill infected chickens and banning bird shows at county fairs. Mississippi is considering road barricades and planning biosecurity measures. Iowa is trying to figure out how to deal with a mountain of dead - and reeking - chickens.
Federal health experts are hopeful that the virulent bird flu that has devastated Midwestern poultry farms in recent months has reached its peak and will taper off as the weather warms. But worried state officials aren't taking chances.
Fears that the virus, which has led to the deaths of nearly 45 million birds in 16 states and Canada, could come roaring back in the fall, when temperatures cool, have agriculture officials across the U.S. preparing for the worst.
Even states that haven't been hit yet are taking no chances.
"We're better safe than sorry," said Dr. Robert Cobb, state veterinarian for Georgia, the nation's leading producer of chickens raised for meat, which has not had any cases so far. "All the research I've been able to find is showing that this virus could likely stick around for years."
After a backyard flock in northeastern Indiana tested positive in early May - the state's first case of the virus - Indiana's State Board of Animal Health banned all bird shows at county fairs this summer, following similar moves in Iowa, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
The board and other state agencies also began planning what they would need in the event of a wider outbreak, including portable toilets and protective gear for personnel.
And they asked the Department of Corrections to begin training non-violent offenders to help with any culls needed.
In late May, the first group of 50 inmates were fit-tested for respirators, and began training on how to safely remove chickens from cages and transfer them to an enclosed cart used to asphyxiate the birds.
Denise Derrer, spokeswoman for the state board of animal health, said crews of low-level offenders have also helped with state recovery efforts after floods and tornadoes and will be used in the event of a wider outbreak.
"We can't count on warm weather killing off this virus," Derrer said.
To the south, Mississippi State Veterinarian Jim Watson, whose state has so far escaped the outbreak, is prepping for the virus to arrive later this year or in early 2016. He and his team have discussed road barricades, biosecurity and the possibility of declaring a state of emergency.
The team has purchased a second foam-based system, used to spray inside infected barns and suffocate birds.
"We're on the Mississippi River, so there's going to have to be geese and ducks that are contaminated coming down that flyway," Watson said. "Even though we have very few chicken farms on the water, those birds are going to stray all over the state during hunting season."
While the outbreak does appear to be slowing in the Midwest, where most of the 44.6 million affected birds have been located, outbreak spikes can be difficult to spot quickly in the federal data.
The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) reports cases that its labs confirm, but these numbers often come days or weeks after state agencies have identified and reported probable cases.
Just a day after USDA Chief Veterinary Officer John Clifford told Reuters last week that the agency believed the worst was over, Nebraska announced that a new egg farm with 3 million hens had tested positive. Iowa also reported another outbreak, resulting in the need to cull 1 million more birds.
The uncertainty led Alabama veterinary officials to meet with Gov. Robert J. Bentley's staff to outline bird flu response options. The groups were in agreement, said State Veterinarian Tony Frazier, that Alabama, the third largest producer of broiler chickens, couldn't afford take a wait-and-see approach.
Even if the outbreak is waning for now, cleanup is far from over.
On Friday, the USDA said it wanted to hire more federal contractors "due to the size and scope" of the outbreak. The USDA and Iowa have contracts with three landfills in the state, including one with a large incinerator, to help speed up culling, bird disposal and barn clean-up.
For locals, help can't come soon enough. In Sioux Center, Iowa, neighbors of an infected Center Fresh Group egg-laying facility told Reuters the stench of dead birds was making them sick.
"We can't live here," said John Fuoss, who said he vomited from the smell of dead chickens and manure used as compost on a nearby field. "My head's ready to explode."
And it will take time for residents of afflicted areas to believe the crisis is past.
Katie Olthoff's family has stopped riding bikes around a lake close to their home near Stanhope, Iowa, out of fear their tires could come into contact with water-fowl feces contaminated with the virus. The family, which raises more than 100,000 turkeys a year, is also staying away from the zoo and from friends who have backyard poultry flocks.
The family, Olthoff said, now assumes "that wherever we go, the entire environment is contaminated." (Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter in Chicago. Additional reporting by Tom Polansek in Iowa.)