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Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

How bad is COVID? Even the deer test positive in Michigan. (Don’t be alarmed)

deer
Experts told Bridge Michigan that hunters can take to the woods without hesitation. But if you bag a deer, handle it with care to protect yourself from COVID and other infectious diseases. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

At least some of Michigan’s deer herd has been exposed to the COVID-19 virus, but you don’t need to worry about contracting the virus from your backyard Bambi.

That’s the takeaway from a new study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) that found 60 percent of 113 deer sampled in Michigan had COVID antibodies in their blood serum.

But deer that contract the virus don’t seem to get sick. And their chances of spreading the virus back to humans is low. So while the results are notable, they’re not cause for alarm.

 

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Here’s what you need to know about COVID in Michigan’s deer, according to experts who discussed the study with Bridge Michigan:

Go hunt. The risk of transmission to humans is low.

Don’t worry about getting COVID from deer. Worry about the unvaccinated person sitting next to you at the restaurant or music festival. 

Gail Keirn, a spokesperson for APHIS, noted that there is “no evidence that animals play a significant role” in spreading COVID to people. 

Although animal-to-human transmission is not impossible, people pose a far greater risk than animals of creating and spreading new variants. That’s largely because humans spend way more time around other humans than they do around deer, said Dr. Srinand Sreevatsan, a Michigan State University veterinary medicine professor who specializes in infectious diseases.

Sreevatsan’s advice: Once deer season starts, hunters can take to the woods without hesitation. But if you bag a deer, handle it with care. Wear a mask while processing the animal’s meat, and thoroughly clean any surface that comes into contact with the carcass.

“Even if the (COVID) virus is not present in the deer, there are other things that you can get from deer,” Sreevatsan said. “So it’s best to have good hygienic practice.”

Health officials stress that the COVID vaccine remains the best way to protect yourself against infection. 

And if you’re sick with COVID, avoid hunting while you’re contagious: You don’t want to pass the virus on to the local deer population, either.

Humans likely culprit

The results are no surprise. White-tailed deer are abundant in the United States and Michigan, regularly come into contact with people, and are susceptible to COVID. 

In a pandemic that has infected more than 114 million Americans, it’s not shocking that the animals in our midst could become infected, too.

Of 481 study samples collected from Michigan, Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania, 113 came from Michigan. Michigan’s 60 percent antibody rate was the highest. Across all samples, the antibody rate was 33 percent.

Samples were taken from deer in 11 Michigan counties between January and March: Emmet, Lenawee, Montmorency, Jackson, Presque Isle, Alpena, Alcona, Mecosta, Gratiot, Ingham and Isabella.

Only the Emmett, Lenawee and Montmorency samples came back with no positives.

Keirn stressed that the limited sample should not be used to draw conclusions about the prevalence of COVID in Michigan’s broader deer population.

The results merely indicate that deer in some subpopulations were exposed to COVID. Agriculture officials said it’s unclear whether they contracted the virus from humans, the environment, other deer or other animals.

COVID doesn’t seem to make deer sick.

None of the deer populations surveyed for the study showed signs of illness, officials said.

In a separate study, federal officials intentionally infected captive deer with COVID. None of them showed signs of illness, either.

But Sreevatsan noted that just because deer aren’t susceptible to the current strain of the virus doesn’t mean future mutations couldn't make them sick. That makes it important for humans to avoid passing COVID on to deer by taking precautions, such as avoiding hunting when sick.

Deer aren’t the only ones with COVID

Minks gained a lot of attention last year when officials in the Netherlands euthanized hundreds of thousands of the weasels after two cases of mink-to-human transmission during outbreaks at fur farms. 

Gorillas at the San Diego Zoo, a Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo, and pet cats and dogs around the globe have tested positive for COVID. Dolphins and whales are also at high risk.

So, why do we care? 

The study gives scientists one more datapoint in the search for COVID’s origins and its pathways to spread.

“Studying the susceptibility of certain mammals, such as deer, to SARS-CoV-2 helps to identify species that may serve as reservoirs or hosts for the virus, as well as understand the origin of the virus, and predict its impacts on wildlife and the risks of cross-species transmission,” an APHIS release stated.

The agency is working with partners including the U.S. Department of the Interior, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, to determine next steps. to determine next steps.

State scientists weren’t involved in the study.

Neither the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, which oversees game animals in the state, nor the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services were involved in the study.

Health spokesperson Lynn Sutfin said federal officials only notified the agency of their research last week. 

Sutfin said “more information is needed” to answer questions about what the findings mean for Michiganders.

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