KNOXVILLE, Tennessee (WATE) — Even wild deer aren’t protected from the spread of COVID, conservationists say, but can hunters or others who come in contact with an infected animal contract the virus?
A recent Penn State survey found that more than 80% of white-tailed deer sampled in various parts of Iowa between December 2020 and January 2021 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, or more commonly known as COVID-19. The researchers urged caution among hunters, as they suggest white-tailed deer could be a reservoir for the coronavirus.
While the data showed that more than 80% of the deer harvested tested positive for COVID-19, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency officials and Dr. Marcy Souza of the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee that there is no evidence that deer transmit the virus to humans.
“So I think the studies that have come out have raised more questions than they have provided answers. You know, right now there’s really no evidence that hunters can get Sars-CoV-2 by handling an animal they’ve hunted, Sousa said.
The risk of deer spreading COVID-19 to humans is low, as it is a respiratory disease and transmission occurs by inhaling respiratory droplets. Currently, there is no evidence that humans can contract COVID-19 by cooking or eating meat from an animal infected with SARS-CoV-2, including wild game meat hunted in the United States.
TWRA Headquarters Officials
Souza, the director of Veterinary Public Health at UTK, said this is the second study in which deer were found to have COVID-19 in their systems. The first was from the USDA in August. This study found COVID-19 antibodies in deer from four different states, including Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania.
Souza said the Penn State investigation was different. It showed that the deer were actively infected when they were tested.
“So they looked at lymph nodes in deer harvested by hunters and found that a pretty large percentage of them were positive by PCR, showing that they actually had the virus in them, as opposed to the antibodies that show they’re on a have been exposed at some point,” Souza said.
Souza said there are numerous viruses and bacteria that can be transmitted from deer or other wildlife to humans, but at this time there is no evidence that COVID-19 is one of them.
However, both Souza and TWRA officials said hunters should still take the following precautions because of the non-COVID diseases they can contract while harvesting deer.
“[Make] sure you’re taking good protective measures to avoid being exposed to anything, not just SARS-CoV-2,” Souza said. “That might include wearing gloves if you’re actually dressing an animal. Wash your hands afterwards , not eating, drinking or smoking while dressing the animal is very important.”
Terry Lewis, an avid hunter for 45 years, said he’s not worried about catching COVID-19 from deer. He took every precaution he could while dressing deer before he knew deer could have the virus.
“You know, we try to take as many precautions as we do, whether COVID is a problem or not, we always wear rubber gloves, wash our hands and wash our tools when we harvest an animal,” Lewis said.
Souza said wearing a mask wouldn’t hurt, because sometimes when dressing an animal, the bodily fluids can splash into the air. But spreading that way is a low risk when harvesting outdoors.
Because of the outdoor hunting, Lewis said he has no intention of wearing a mask.
“Wearing a mask in the woods is not really appropriate in my opinion. You’re out in the open air, you’re out. There’s no one else around,” Lewis said.
Souza said there are other precautions hunters should take, such as keeping the venison cold to prevent the growth of bacteria and cooking it at the correct temperature to kill other bacteria.
Here are some other tips for hunters:
- Do not allow contact between wildlife and pets, including pets and hunting dogs.
- Do not harvest animals that appear sick or are found dead.
- Keep the game meat clean and cool the meat as soon as possible after harvesting the animal.
- Avoid cutting the spine and spinal tissues and do not eat the brains of wildlife.
- When handling and cleaning game:
- Wear rubber or disposable gloves.
- Do not eat, drink or smoke.
- Wear a face covering/mask.
- When you are done handling and cleaning the game:
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water
- Clean knives, equipment and surfaces that have come into contact with game meat with soap and water and then disinfect them.
- Cook all game meat thoroughly (to an internal temperature of 165°F or higher).