Wisconsin health officials recommend hunters wear a mask when field dressing deer – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Three white-tailed deer feed along the edge of a woodlot in southern Wisconsin.

Due to findings of SARS-CoV-2 in white-tailed deer, Wisconsin health officials have added a few planks to their recommendations to hunters this fall, including wearing a mask when field dressing deer.

The state Department of Health Services released its updated guidance for deer hunters on Monday.

“Hunters are always encouraged to use good hygiene practices when processing animals to reduce their risk of exposure to many possible disease agents,” the agency says on its website. “Incorporating a few additional measures can also help to reduce their risk of possible exposure to the SARS-CoV-2 virus.”

SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans.

Studies released earlier this month documented the virus in whitetails in Iowa (33% of deer tested) and Ohio (36%).

While DHS said there is no evidence wildlife, including white-tailed deer, are a source of COVID-19 illness for people in the U.S, the recent findings caused the agency to expand its recommendations to hunters in advance of the start of the gun deer hunting season Saturday.

The list includes three new measures: wearing a mask while field dressing deer; limit cutting into and handling the deer’s lungs, throat, and mouth/nasal cavity to only what is necessary (for example, submitting a head for CWD testing); and if you are immunocompromised, consider asking for assistance with carcass processing and handling. 

As COVID-19 spread through the human population in 2020 and 2021, some researchers began looking for the disease in other species. They found SARS-CoV-2 in mink, otters, tigers, lions and non-human primates, mostly in captive settings, and white-tailed deer both in captivity and in the wild.

No deer in Wisconsin have yet been tested for the virus. But health and wildlife experts say given the results from elsewhere in the Midwest its highly likely SARS-CoV-2 is also present in whitetails in the Badger State.

The Department of Natural Resources is planning to participate this winter in a SARS-CoV-2 deer testing project being organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service.

It’s not clear how deer contracted the virus, but the researchers in the Iowa and Ohio studies suggested there was spillover of SARS-CoV-2 from humans to deer with deer-to-deer transmission also occurring. 

There has been no report of clinical illness associated with SARS-CoV-2 in the deer populations the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Inspection Service surveyed, according to USDA APHIS. In addition, captive deer experimentally infected with SARS-CoV-2 as part of a USDA Agricultural Research Service study did not show clinical signs of illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there is also no evidence people can get COVID-19 from preparing and eating game meat.

The risk of animals spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people is generally considered to be low and close contact with an infected person is still the most likely way a person would be exposed, according to DHS.

However, available information is very limited about white-tailed deer and SARS-CoV-2, the agency said Monday.

Many deer hunters have a habit of wearing rubber gloves when field dressing deer. But wearing a mask is a new consideration.

When told Monday about the updated DHS recommendations, Jim Smukowski, 52 of Oconomowoc, was taken aback.

“Say what?” said Smukowski, a deer hunter for 40 years who is planning to hunt this week in Richland County. “I think we’ve got bigger fish to fry. I won’t be wearing (a mask).”

The new recommendations were produced since “we still have much to learn about white-tailed deer and SARS-CoV-2 infection, including learning what risk, if any, an infected deer may pose to hunters,” DHS said in a statement. “For now, we encourage hunters to follow good hygiene practices when processing their deer and to follow the COVID-19 recommendations outlined to help protect themselves, others and wildlife.”

The full list of DHS recommendations to hunters is:

  • Do not harvest animals that appear sick or are found dead. 
  • Keep the carcass and meat clean. Cool the meat as soon as possible after harvesting the animal.

When handling and cleaning the carcass:

  • Wear rubber or disposable gloves.
  • Wear a mask.
  • Do not eat, drink, or smoke.
  • Limit cutting through the backbone and spinal tissues to only what is necessary (for example, to submit the head for chronic wasting disease testing). Do not eat the brain.
  • Limit cutting into and handling the lungs, throat, and mouth/nasal cavity to only what is necessary (for example, submitting a head for CWD testing). 
  • If you are immunocompromised, consider asking for assistance with carcass processing and handling.

When finished handling the carcass:

  •  Wash hands thoroughly with soap and water; and wash all knives, equipment, and surfaces that were in contact with the carcass with soap and water and also use a disinfectant. 
  • Cook all game meat thoroughly (to an internal temperature of 165°F or higher).
  • Have your deer tested for CWD, especially if it was harvested from a county where CWD-positive deer have been previously detected. Do not consume the deer meat until you have received a result indicating no CWD was detected.

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