Deer are carrying COVID antibodies. Here's what it means and how to stay safe.

Bill Conners
Outdoors

Not two full days after writing a column discussing the re-emergence of epizootic hemorrhagic disease, or EHD, here in New York, I received word that a recent study by USDA found that one-third of blood samples collected from free-ranging white-tailed deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania had SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, including 18% of the samples collected in New York.

Previous studies by USDA and Cornell University had found it was possible for deer to be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19. Apparently the researchers were not surprised to find COVID antibodies in wild deer. On the other hand, I have to admit the revelation caught me completely off guard.

In the final analysis, the news may not be as earth-shattering as we might expect it to be. Information from Cornell University’s Animal Health Diagnostic Center reports that the presence of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies is an indication that a deer may have been exposed to the virus, but the mere presence of the antibodies does not necessarily indicate current infection. I have yet to uncover any information that points to deer are presenting with symptoms of COVID, or that they are dying from it. Not in this region, nor elsewhere in the state.

I don’t have a clue as to how deer, especially free-ranging deer, were exposed to the virus. Researchers speculate it could have been through people, the environment, other deer or another animal species. I have not heard what other species may also be carrying the antibodies.

Both Cornell and the USDA report that there is no evidence that animals, including deer, are playing a significant role in the spread of COVID-19. Based on existing evidence the risk to people from animals is low. Most people will not come into direct contact with wildlife. Even those that do will generally have limited contact.

People like wildlife rehabilitators and captive deer owners who routinely come in to direct contact with wild or captive deer should limit contact when and where possible. Be sure to follow proper biosecurity procedures when direct contact needs to occur by wearing gloves and a facemask, thoroughly washing hands before and after contact, and properly disinfecting equipment.

Hunters and trappers who may harvest deer or other game during the fall seasons should take common-sense precautions against exposing themselves to any of the several diseases that deer may or may not be carrying. That would include diseases such as chronic wasting disease, which is not known to currently be in the deer herd here in New York. However, we know that EHD is present and now we are aware deer are carrying COVID antibodies.

Cautiously and correctly handling any deer that you may harvest can help keep you and your family safe from the time you first touch the animal in the field until it is served up for dinner. Be aware of the “Best Practices” for handling deer and follow them.

As I said, CWD has not been detected here in New York since 2005, but that does not mean that you should throw caution to the wind.

Field dressing

Do not shoot any deer that is acting abnormal or appears to be sick. Once you decide to harvest an animal, once it’s down, check the deer for obvious problems. If it looks healthy, go to work.

Wear protective gloves. Latex, nitrile gloves, or rubber gloves will work. Just make sure that whatever you choose allows the dexterity needed to keep your fingers away from the knife blade. Eye protection is also recommended.

Keep your field-dressing implements separate from your butchering implements.

If you are using lead ammo, don’t leave the organs out there in the timber for other animals to scavenge. Lead poisoning is a growing concern. You could bury the organs if you are not using non-lead ammunition.

Butchering/processing

Hang the deer for butchering, it keeps the meat clean and makes the chore a lot easier.

Keep the work surface clean and disinfect it between animals if butchering multiple deer.

Trim generously around the wound channel. If you use lead ammo, lead fragments can travel quite a distance (up to 18 inches) depending on bullet type.

Debone that deer! Keep contact with the brain, spinal cord, lymph nodes, and spleen to a minimum. Lymph nodes can be found between muscles in connective tissue so remove fat and other tissues before grinding meat.

Be generous when trimming meat near shattered bone, near the spine, skull and bullet channels in the meat. 

Avoid sawing into bone where possible. If you remove the head or antlers, be sure to use a disinfected or disposable saw blade. Do not cut into meat with the same blade you use to cut bone!

The Cornell Wildlife Health Lab has a very comprehensive article on its website that goes into detail on handling deer that are going to be prepared for human consumption.  I think it would be worth the time of any hunter to read it — even experienced ones. With the growing number of diseases deer are carrying, it’s possible there may be something in the article you have not thought about. Access the article at https://cwhl.vet.cornell.edu/article/tips-safe-handling-and-processing-venison. 

Since we now know deer are carrying COVID antibodies — even though all of the implications of that are not clear,  the best way to minimize the risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 is to get vaccinated. Especially older hunters.

Bill Conners of the Federation of Fish and Game Clubs writes on outdoors issues. Email: conners@billconners.net.

Bill Conners