Dozens of birds were found dead in Casco Bay in June 2022 that are suspected to have died from avian flu. Credit: Shannon Silverson via CBS 13/WGME

Maine wildlife officials have been instructed to limit the number of specimens they submit for testing of avian flu as backlogs at federal laboratories are hampering efforts to track the disease’s spread.

Officials are now assuming any sick or dying birds — especially waterfowl — are infected with the deadly H5N1 variant of avian flu. This includes dozens of dead or dying seagulls spotted last week on Gooseberry Island off the coast of Biddeford.

Without the ability to confirm every case of suspected bird flu, there is no way to know exactly how many wild bird deaths in Maine are due to the deadly H5N1 variant. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal Plant Health Inspection Service, which has been tracking the outbreak, has not added any cases in Maine since early spring.

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In Maine, there were 10 confirmed avian flu cases as of last week, with more likely on specimens still being tested, according to Mark Latti, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Samples from Maine seals also tested positive for the virus for the first time earlier this month.

“The labs are so backed up now they are asking people not to submit samples,” Latti said. “Because of the number of specimens they are currently handling they have asked us to be selective.”

That means Maine is only sending samples for testing if the dead birds or mammals are from areas with no previously confirmed cases, it’s a new species showing symptoms, or the case presents a direct threat to public health.

There are only six labs nationwide that conduct the necessary tests, according to Latti. Specimens from Maine go to a lab in Madison, Wisconsin.

The last time the APHIS list was updated with Maine information was in April when it listed a bald eagle that had died of avian flu in Lincoln County.

Maine saw a surge in the number of bird flu cases in late June, and early July and state officials are hopeful the worst is over as temperatures warm up.

“We are seeing a decline in the number of calls reporting possible cases compared to two weeks ago,” Latti said. “But avian flu is present in Maine.”

It’s also still surging in other parts of the country, Latti said.

The USDA is waiting for confirmation of other potential cases of avian flu before adding them to the list, according to an agency spokesperson.

“There are a lot of different moving parts when it comes to disease detection in the wild birds,” said Tanya Espinosa, public affairs specialist with USDA-APHIS. “When samples are collected by our staff, if confirmed that HPAI was detected in the sample by our National Veterinary Services Laboratory, we can post those results to the APHIS HPAI wild bird surveillance web page with no issues.”

Samples collected by other agencies and sent on to other labs that then test positive for avian flu must next be confirmed by the national veterinary laboratory, according to Espinosa. Once they are confirmed, APHIS then reaches out to the original agency that collected the sample to request permission to post the information on the website.

That is what is happening with the Maine cases, Espinosa said.

“Obviously the impacts of avian influenza are being felt far and wide,” Latti said. “From our coast to the interior areas of the midwest, it’s been spreading.”

Anyone finding a dead or dying bird or mammal they suspect of having avian flu in a public area should contact DIF&W. If the bird or animal is on private property, you can remove them using personal protection gear, including gloves and a mask, and place it in a plastic bag before putting it in the trash.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.