COVID-infected deer studied

They’ve been found in New York, Pennsylvania, and other states, so what’s the threat on M.V.?

Deer in Iowa have caught COVID. So far, deer populations in Massachusetts have not been tested or shown to have COVID. — MV Times Files

Deer in Iowa have been infected with COVID-19, according to a recent study conducted by university researchers, including those from Penn State and Iowa State, as well as Iowa wildlife officials. This study has not been peer-reviewed yet, but the researchers “found the results so disturbing that they are alerting deer hunters and others who handle deer to take precautions to avoid transmission,” according to The New York Times.

A survey done from January 2020 to March 2021 by the United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found COVID antibodies in white-tail deer in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania. The more recent study found active COVID infections among Iowa’s white-tail deer populations. 

According to the study, the researchers tested retropharyngeal lymph nodes of 151 free-living and 132 captive deer in Iowa from April 2020 to January 2021. Of all of the deer tested, around 33% tested positive for COVID. However, a little over 80% of another group of deer tested between November 2020 and January 2021 were infected with COVID. 

With what is known about white-tail deer and COVID so far, to what extent is the Island at risk? 

“It’s certainly being discussed among various people [on the Island],” Richard Johnson from the Martha’s Vineyard Tick Program told The Times. He also said there are an estimated 40 deer per square mile on the Island. “It’s probably a good idea to take precautions just in case it’s here. We don’t know if it is, but we don’t know if it isn’t either.”

These concerns especially affect the Island’s Deer Management Program, a collaborative effort among the Island Grown Initiative, the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Society, and the Martha’s Vineyard Tick Program. One part of the Deer Management Program that is taking precautions is the venison donation program, which accepts extra meat from hunters and distributes cooked venison meals to Islanders in need. 

Rebecca Haag, executive director of Island Grown Initiative, said they are following safety protocols when handling the deer meat, such as wearing masks and gloves and cooking at 165 degrees Fahrenheit, which is the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries and Wildlife’s (DFW) recommended temperature to cook game meat at to kill pathogens. Haag said most hunters on the Island fortunately already practice hunting safety measures. The Iowa cases have been shared with the Island’s health agents and those working in the venison donation program will continue to keep in place safety measures and warn people to stay vigilant about the deer-COVID news developments, Haag said.

DFW has already been and continues to monitor the situation of deer and COVID, according to Martin Feehan, the deer and moose project leader at DFW’s Westborough Field Headquarters. 

“Although there is no direct evidence of COVID-19 in deer in Massachusetts, published studies and unpublished surveillance throughout North America have found the presence of COVID-19 in white-tailed deer. The prevalence rates have varied regionally, but there haven’t been cases of populations appearing entirely negative [in cases] in 2020 and 2021,” Feehan wrote in an email. “This would suggest that COVID-19 is already present in deer populations in Massachusetts. There is no evidence currently that COVID-19 adversely impacts white-tailed deer and no mortalities have been reported.”

According to the DFW website, a study done by Ohio State University using polymerase chain reaction testing on its deer found that while COVID can spread among the animals’ populations, they are contagious for only about seven days. Additionally, Feehan said there is currently “no direct evidence humans can contract COVID-19 from white-tailed deer.” However, to mitigate risks hunters and others should follow best practices of handling wild game meat since it is still uncertain. 

Other New England states, such as Maine and Vermont, are also monitoring the situation of deer and COVID, according to Bangor Daily News and Burlington Free Press respectively. 

Sam Telford, an epidemiologist and a professor of infectious diseases at Tufts University, said COVID is a respiratory disease, so it is unlikely people can contract the virus from deer meat or blood. Telford said exposure to respiratory secretions or lung tissue is the more likely path to COVID infection if the deer can spread the virus to humans. Johnson said many deer hunters who use bows and arrows target the lungs for a swift kill. 

“As an epidemiologist, I tend to look at empirical evidence. 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. We have not heard of hunters mysteriously getting COVID, or at least not at a rate any different than the general public,” Telford wrote an email. “That tells me that the probability is pretty small that a hunter is at risk. Very much like tick-borne infections, hunters do not appear to get infected at a rate any greater than the general public despite their exposure to tick-infested deer or to blood and tissues of deer that have had many many ticks on them.”

Telford said most preparation of freshly-killed deer is done outdoors, so environmental elements like sunlight and wind reduce the risk of infections. 

“Once the deer has been dead a while, maybe a day or more, then even if it had a lot of virus in its secretions it would be much less infectious,” Telford said. “There is a significant decline in virus viability in carcasses over time. So, by the time hunters or processors cut the meat up, there may be very little infectious virus even if it was present in blood or muscle.”

Johnson said another concern people have voiced is whether the deer populations could act as a reservoir for COVID to mutate into a variant that can be spread back to humans.

“The more places, the more animals and humans this virus is living in and moving around, the more likely it is to mutate into something a much more dangerous form,” Johnson said. “That’s the real worry in my mind, and I think public health people will agree. ”

Telford said there are many COVID variants, but only a handful are of “public health significance.” He said the ramifications of the COVID virus circulating in deer populations remain to be seen. At this time, it is still unknown how deer contracted COVID, although Telford said there is a yet-to-be-peer-reviewed study that detected rare COVID genotypes in deer. He said this suggests a possibility COVID is generated within the deer. Telford believes a better idea of the severity of the situation will be known by the first of 2022 when hunting seasons in the eastern regions of the United States are largely over. 

“Viruses circulating in different kinds of animals could undergo small mutations that could better adapt them to those animals. Whether those changes imply anything to humans is not clear,” Telford said. “I still think that the virus is doing pretty well in humans and that the emergence of new variants from animals is probably less likely than variants emerging from the huge number of people out there.”


  1. Looks like it’s time for a deer lockdown, masks on all bucks & does over a year old. Social distancing and hoof washing is highly recommend. Possibly a vax clinic at the state forest. Stay tuned.

  2. 3 snow leopards at a Nebraska zoo just died of complications from covid after testing positive the week before. Thanks antivaxers. We know who needs a lockdown and mandatory masks and it ain’t the deer.

    • But Axl and Kumar the Sumatran tigers recovered completely from Covid and the Zoo tells us no other animals are infected. We dont know which animals wore masks and which were vaccinated. Where are you going with this Jackie?

    • Jackie, comments are closed on previous post. Just wanted to follow up on your input about looking up information and how easy it is. You were right! I looked up on the cdc website that Heart disease kills 659,00 yearly in US. To date since the beginning of Covid 765,000 Americans have died. So almost 2 years of Covid vs 1 year of heart disease. Where did you get your information from? I’m curious

      • Google “covid leading cause of death in USA” and you’ll find your information, current as of October, 2021. Really, it’s not that hard to do your own work if you try a little.

        • Is the CDC website not a good enough source for you? I googled what you said. Why would I trust that random .org website that pops up first? Or NPR. The CDC is the most credible source there is for the data. You should try it. It’s pretty easy.

  3. This article should not have been published. Now a couple of people on this site will project that Covid is getting into our food supply as another variant and we all have to lockdown all over again–that its not over and we must remain diligent, never eat venison and who knows what else is off limits.

    • Andy– Once again you have risen to the challenge to spread your opinion about what people are going to do or say, with no basis in reality. Just your typical hysterical rant about how “they” are going to take away our freedom, or whatever.

      • Keller, some of us have been on this post for many years and its easy to know what others are going to say due to their ideology. It is reality. You invented hysteria and ranting on climate and fossil fuels and cars idling. You are ubiquitous on the arcane and almost everything that comes up including 5 year old ”heroes” for showing up to vaccine.

        • Andy– I find it most interesting that you think I invented hysteria on climate change. And just to address the comment about cars idling.
          That state of Ma. signed chapter 90 section 16 a into law over 20 years ago. Thank you for giving me credit for that.
          Also given the comments about 5 year old Owen getting his covid shot, it seems I am not alone in calling him a hero.
          Most of your heroes seem to be under indictment or in jail.
          What does that say about your morality ?

  4. Another reason why we should allow a massive culling that either eliminates the deer population or reduces it to a fraction. This would reduce car accidents, Lyme disease, and now supposedly Covid. Of course, this will never happen because the patchouli mafia will get up in arms about it and stop it

  5. I cant believe i am going to chime in on this but….
    this is the one i would go off of.
    there seems to be some large gaps in fact based info…a few studies are from farm raised deer. i could see that. show me one person that has touched a live wild deer, traded bodily fluids with it (to spread it to them). Deer do not contract lyme but carry the ticks that do. apparently they dont get show symptoms from covid either. all tests show positive for antibodies but none for the actual virus…if anyone wants to chat about it, reach out to me, this is obviously not the place to have a conversation about it.

    • I still think it would be a good idea to lobby govt. for funds to test deer at weigh stations. That way, even if we still won’t know how or whether infected deer can re-transmit to humans, at least we’ll know whether our deer population has been affected. Now would be the time to gather this info.

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