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State Veterinary, Poultry and Aquaculture Laboratories Committed to Service Despite Challenges of Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a significant damper on “business as usual” for the vast majority of businesses in our state, including many deemed “essential” during this unprecedented time. However, as others have struggled to maintain staffing and operations, the Mississippi Veterinary Research and Diagnostic Laboratory System (MVRDLS) has risen to the challenge, continuing to provide much-needed surveillance and diagnostic testing for practicing veterinarians, individual producers, pet owners, and the livestock, aquaculture and poultry industries throughout the state.

Located in three geographic sites and operated by the Mississippi State University College of Veterinary Medicine (MSU CVM), the MVRDLS includes a total of four labs: the Mississippi Veterinary Research and Diagnostic Laboratory (MVRDL) and the Poultry Research and Diagnostic Laboratory (PRDL), both of which are located in Pearl, MS; the Aquaculture Research and Diagnostic Laboratory (ARDL) located in Stoneville, MS; and the CVM Diagnostic and Aquatic Laboratory (DAL) housed in the Wise Center on the College’s main campus in Starkville. The labs are staffed with veterinarians, technicians, research scientists and support staff committed to protecting the health of animals, people, and our state’s vital agricultural economy.

According to Dr. Lanny Pace, executive director of MVRDLS, the dedication and teamwork of the lab employees have surpassed his expectations during what has become the country’s largest health crisis in the last one hundred years. “I’ve known for a long time that our staff is completely committed to meeting the needs of those we serve across our state, but as I began preparing an annual comparison report of the number of tests conducted on laboratory submissions from farm animal species, it just became all the more obvious,” Dr. Pace said.

And, if numbers truly don’t lie, Dr. Pace’s assessment of his team is correct. According to the report, the laboratory system performed as many or more tests and services during the last year as were done during the previous year, despite the ongoing pandemic.

Test numbers for March 1 – April 21, 2020, on samples from food animal species were 53,186 tests completed, an increase of over 2% compared to the same time period in 2019. In looking at year-to-year comparisons for the entire months of March and April in 2019 and 2020, the numbers had leveled off, but even with restrictions in place because of COVID-19, the laboratories still completed 62,366 tests in March and April 2020, which is 97.6% of the number of tests completed for the same time period in 2019.

“These numbers are quite impressive to say the least,” MSU CVM Dean Kent Hoblet said. “Keep in mind, the labs had to modify operations to allow for the recommended social distancing and other such precautions put in place by the CDC. They alternated work shifts, adjusted procedures, and made other necessary accommodations to ensure workplace safety, yet still managed to perform at or above expected testing capacity. This clearly reflects their commitment to what they do.”

Dr. Hoblet also noted that despite several of the laboratory staff members having had family members with the virus, the overall lab system has done such an excellent job with their COVID-19 infection prevention measures, that thus far, not a single employee has been infected with the virus.

Dr. Pace said the fact that the MVRDLS is the state’s only laboratory with approval to run government-required surveillance and regulatory tests for domestic and food animals, including those tests that are required before the harvest, sale or shipping of food-animal products, illustrates the importance of the system continuing to function at full capacity despite any challenges. “Folks are counting on us to do our job so they can do theirs,” he said. “Even though we do a high volume of regulatory tests, the diagnostic tests we provide are equally as important. They help producers, veterinarians and industry make decisions about treatment and vaccine programs.”

In addition, Dr. Danny Magee, poultry diagnostic lab director, noted that the number of tests conducted by the PRDL was actually on pace to exceed last year’s total until mid-April. “We suspect the devastation to the poultry industry caused by the two EF4 tornadoes that struck so many poultry houses in the state on Easter Sunday impacted our final totals. Also, about this same time, COVID-19 apparently impacted the ability of some processing plants to fully staff their workforces— which in turn affects their ability to process the usual number of birds— so that would ultimately affect our numbers as well.”

The ARDL, which works predominantly with the state’s aquaculture industry, did experience an increased caseload from the last year, as did the CVM DAL, despite the fact it and the CVM Animal Health Center were only accepting emergency and essential cases as a result of the pandemic during the last several weeks of data collection.

“The services we provide are vital to the people in our state and to our state’s economy, and we are proud to be charged with this important responsibility and to meet it, despite the COVID-19 crisis,” Dr. Pace said. “In addition, our lab system will gladly assist the Mississippi State Department of Health should our services be needed related to the pandemic. Veterinary tests and supplies are very similar to those in human medicine, and many of our veterinarians and research scientists are familiar with the COVID-19 testing equipment, supplies and protocols as a result of their training.”

Dr. Pace noted that an MVRDL faculty member is, in fact, already assisting the MS Public Health Laboratory in their COVID-19 testing laboratory as part of a team of MSU CVM scientists who volunteered to work weekends, allowing MSDH staff to have some time off.

“Many veterinary diagnostic labs throughout the country have been called upon to provide personnel and resources in the areas most impacted by the virus— such as those in Oklahoma, Indiana and Colorado,” Dr. Pace said. “And, we stand ready to do our part should, in the unfortunate circumstance, that become necessary here in Mississippi.”

Dr. Hoblet added, “I am very proud of the work the faculty and staff of our diagnostic laboratory system have continued to do— and do very well— during a time when many people have been reluctant to go to work. They continued to do their part to keep food coming to the rest of us from Mississippi farms, and they have done this without fanfare. They give extra meaning to ‘essential’ personnel.”