KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Even wild deer aren’t sheltered from the spread of COVID, wildlife officials say, but can hunters or others who come in contact with an infected animal catch the virus from it?

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A recent study from Penn State found that more than 80% percent of the white-tailed deer sampled in different parts of Iowa between December 2020 and January 2021 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, or better known as COVID-19. The researchers urged caution for hunters as they suggest that white-tailed deer could be a reservoir for the coronavirus.

Although the data showed more than 80% of the harvested deer tested positive for COVID-19, officials with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and Dr. Marcy Souza with the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said there’s no evidence showing the deer are transmitting the virus to humans.

“So, I think the studies that have come out have actually raised more questions than provided answers. You know, at this point, there’s really no evidence that hunters can get Sars-CoV-2 from handling an animal that they’ve hunted,” Souza said.

The risk of deer spreading COVID-19 to people is low given that it is a respiratory disease and transmission occurs through inhaling respiratory droplets. Currently there is no evidence that people can get COVID-19 by preparing or eating meat from an animal infected with SARS-CoV-2, including wild game meat hunted in the United States.

Officials from TWRA Headquarters

Souza, the Director of Veterinary Public Health at UTK, said this is the second study where deer were found to have COVID-19 in their systems. The first was from the USDA back 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 research was different. It showed the deer were actively infected when tested.

“So, they looked at lymph nodes in deer that had been hunter-harvested and found that a pretty large percentage of them were positive by PCR, which is showing that they actually had the virus in them, as opposed to the antibodies which shows they’ve been exposed at some point,” Souza said.

Souza said there’s plenty of viruses and bacteria that can transfer from deer or other game to people, but as of right now there’s no evidence 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 illnesses they could catch while harvesting deer.

“[Make] sure that you’re taking good protective measures to keep yourself from getting exposed to anything, not just SARS-CoV-2,” Souza said. “That includes maybe wearing gloves when you’re actually dressing an animal. Washing your hands afterward, not eating, drinking or smoking while dressing the animal is really important.”

Terry Lewis, an avid hunter for 45 years, said he’s not worried about catching COVID-19 from deer. He took whatever precautions he could while dressing deer before even knowing deer could have the virus.

“You know, we try to take as many precautions as we, whether COVID is an issue or not, we always wear rubber gloves wash our hands, wash our tools when we harvest an animal,” Lewis said.

Souza said wearing a mask wouldn’t hurt, as sometimes when dressing an animal the bodily fluids could spray up in the air. But, spread in that manner is low risk when harvesting outdoors.

Because hunting is outdoors, Lewis said he doesn’t plan to wear a mask.

“Wearing a mask in the woods is not really appropriate in my opinion. You’re out in the great outdoors, you’re outdoors. There’s no one else around,” Lewis said.

Souza said there are other precautions hunters need to take, like keeping the deer meat cold to prevent bacteria growth and cooking them to the proper temperature in order to kill any other bacteria.

Here are some other tips for hunters:

  • Do not allow contact between wildlife and domestic animals, including pets and hunting dogs.
  • Do not harvest animals that appear sick or are found dead.
  • Keep game meat clean and cool the meat down as soon as possible after harvesting the animal.
  • Avoid cutting through the backbone 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 finished handling and cleaning game:
    • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water
    • Clean knives, equipment, and surfaces that were in 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).