CLEVELAND – It’s deer hunting season, and with COVID so prevalent in white-tailed deer, should hunters be worried about catching the virus or eating the meat?
A study lead by researchers from Penn State University found that upwards of 80% of the deer sampled in various counties in Iowa from December 2020 to January 2021 tested positive for COVID-19, while 33% of all deer included in the several-month study tested positive.
“The findings suggest that white-tailed deer may be a reservoir for the virus to continually circulate and raise concerns about the emergence of new strains that may prove a threat to wildlife and, possibly, to humans,” states a news release from Penn State.
The deer were likely infected as the result of “multiple human-to-deer spillover events and deer-to-deer transmission,” the study states.
While there is no evidence that deer have infected humans with the virus, experts are still concerned by the possibility, said Dr. Robert Salata, chairman of the Department of Medicine at University Hospitals.
Salata said he presumes any transmission from deer to humans would likely involve the respiratory tract as it does with humans and that he recommends hunters take precautions when handling deer, not just around the nose and mouth, but with other parts of the body as well.
He said in humans COVID can involve the gastrointestinal tract, so he wouldn’t discount that as a potential point of transmission.
Until more is known, it would be appropriate for hunters to wear gloves and a mask when handling deer, he said.
As for becoming infected by consuming venison from an infected deer, Salata said that should not be a concern as long as you thoroughly cook the meat.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife issued a statement that said there is no evidence people can get COVID “by preparing or eating meat from an animal infected with the virus.”
The statement goes on to say, ”To limit deer-to-deer transmission, ODNR continues to urge homeowners and hunters to avoid concentrating deer at backyard feeders or in hunting situations. 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.”
In August, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said 67% of the deer tested in Michigan had COVID-19 antibodies. The USDA also said at the time that there was no evidence people eating venison could get the disease from an infected animal.
The recent Penn State study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, examined nearly 300 deer over several months of the pandemic. The samples were taken from lymph nodes in the head and neck as part of the state’s Chronic Wasting Disease surveillance program.