Nantucket Deer Being Tested For COVID-19

On the first day of shotgun deer hunting season on Nantucket, one of the only people not wearing orange at the island check-in station on Monday was biologist Martin Feehan, the deer and moose program leader for the state Division of Fish & Wildlife. 

Feehan is on the island this week taking part in a new and fascinating science mission: testing Nantucket’s deer population for COVID-19. As hunters brought their bucks and does to the check-in station at the Surfside Wastewater Treatment Facility off South Shore Road on Monday evening, Feehan was there to take nasal and blood samples that will allow them to be tested for both live virus and antibodies. Results for the Nantucket deer likely won’t be known for several months, Feehan said. 

The testing is part of a national program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that aims to test 500 to 1,000 deer in each of the 41 states where white-tailed deer are found. 

Nantucket has a massive deer population, estimated to be at least 2,000 animals, or 40 per square mile, based on a thermal imaging survey conducted in 2013. Over the first two days of the shotgun deer hunting season this week, nearly 200 animals were taken. 

“The USDA is conducting the surveillance testing for COVID-19 to help determine its prevalence and transmission to and amongst deer herds,” Feehan said. “They are currently in phase 1, which includes the surveillance across the 41 states with white-tailed deer. This phase is focused on determining if there are geographic differences in COVID-19 prevalence for the virus and antibodies. They are also monitoring the differences in rates between adults and juveniles to determine the percentage of the population that could still be susceptible to contracting the virus and which variants are most prevalent.”

An earlier FDA study conducted from January to March 2021 in four states – Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and New York – detected antibodies for SARS-CoV-2 in 33 percent of the blood samples taken from white-tailed deer. 

The mode of transmission of COVID-19 from humans to white-tailed deer is currently unknown, but there have been no known cases of humans contracting the disease from deer, and no evidence of people becoming infected by eating wild game. 

“The risk for transmission from deer to humans is likely very low due to the outdoor aspect of hunting and the short period of time deer are contagious with the virus,” according to the MassWildlife web site. “SARS-CoV-2 is primarily transmitted by inhaling aerosolized droplets. These droplets can come from respiration or from the digestive tract” and not from consuming meat like venison. 

Nonetheless, the FDA broadened its original study in light of the fact that white-tailed dear are so abundant in the United States and often come into close contact with people. 

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

Epidemiologist Sam Telford told the Martha’s Vineyard Times recently that it does not appear that hunters are at any greater risk for COVID-19 than the general public. 

“Archery season has been ongoing for almost two months in other states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, where SARS-CoV-2 has been detected in deer,” Telford told the Times. “We have not heard of hunters mysteriously getting COVID, or at least not at a rate any different than the general public.”

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