So wild deer are widely infected with the virus that causes COVID-19… what does that mean for hunters?

Staying Safe

Content warning: if the details of deer hunting are not your thing, you’ll want to skip this one.

A: Short answer: Deer hunters should wear an N95 mask or respirator while shooting and handling your kill.

Wear eye protection and gloves when dressing and butchering. Treat the lungs like a biohazard. Use more care than usual to avoid fecal contamination. Cooked venison is safe, but handle raw meat with care–especially organ meat.

Details: We posted earlier this week about newly published scientific findings that white-tailed deer in the United States are widely infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

Much is still unknown about this situation–including whether infected deer have any symptoms. We also do not have any information at this point about whether moose/caribou/elk or even cows and goats might be susceptible.

Most states are not routinely testing their deer populations. Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, for example, says that there have been no cases identified in the state’s deer population.

They also say they are not testing any deer, so it seems obvious that they have found no cases. In states that are testing, infection rates in deer are very high. One study found 80% of tested deer were positive.

Deer-to-human transmission has not been confirmed. But don’t fall into the trap of forgetting the key word: YET. This is a new and rapidly emerging situation, and just because no one has detected deer-to-human transmission does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Facts that no one was looking for are easily missed. People assumed the earth was flat until they didn’t. The threshold of scientific understanding moves–every. single. day. So don’t be surprised when you hear something new tomorrow.

In practical terms, what do hunters need to know?

Well-cooked meat is safe to eat. Muscle meat is not likely going to contain a lot of virus even in an infected animal. The virus does not mainly replicate in muscles or blood. Raw meat (especially organ meat) should be handled with care. This is a respiratory infection–so the lungs and upper respiratory tract of your animal should be treated like a biohazard. Fecal matter can contain significant amounts of virus, so be extra careful with the intestines and avoid fecal contamination when you are dressing.

The highest risk of transmission is going to be when there is any aerosolized matter from the deer that you could breathe in or get up your nose accidentally. The high-risk moments are just after you’ve hit your target (when aerosolized bits might still be in the air), and while you’re dressing & butchering the carcass. Wear an N-95 mask, eye protection, and gloves during field dressing and butchering. Keep your hands clean with soap and water and/or hand sanitizer. (A good idea in any case). Soiled clothing should be washed in hot, soapy water.

If you take your deer to be processed, wear an N95 mask at all times inside these facilities because the equipment aerosolizes particles containing the virus. Also, wear a mask and eye protection if you use any power equipment to process deer yourself.

Hunters should be vaccinated against COVID-19, including younger hunters. This is especially essential if you

1. Have not already had COVID-19,
2. Live with other people who are unvaccinated, and/or
3. Live with other people who are high risk–especially if those people are unvaccinated.

If you’re not already vaxxed and you’re heading out this week, it’s too late for this deer season. Consider giving yourself and your family the gift of peace of mind by starting your vaccine series this holiday season.

If you are among the people who think COVID-19 is no big deal, here’s a reason to think that getting it from a deer could be different: whenever a human gets an infectious disease from another species, the chances of viral mutations go way up. Mutations are random–so this could mean you get a more mild version of COVID-19 from a deer; or it could mean you get something much, much worse than COVID-19. Don’t take that home to your family.

Get in touch with your state’s Department of Natural Resources for information about whether you can test your kill for SARS-CoV-2. It seems that so far, most states are not offering such testing and are not doing any routine surveillance.

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