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COVID-19 detected in Utah mule deer for the first time, but no cause for concern

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Posted at 3:38 PM, Mar 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-28 18:09:37-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Two years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has been confirmed in Utah's mule deer population.

The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources said it collected blood and nasal swab samples from mule deer during their recent winter health assessments.

While only one nasal swab came back positive for the virus — specifically, the delta variant in a female mule deer in Morgan County — the DWR says several others had COVID-19 antibodies in their blood samples, indicating that the virus had already made its way into the mule deer population.

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Biologists perform health checks on mule deer, including nasal swabs to test for COVID-19

This is the first mule deer in the United States to test positive for the virus, although it was previously detected in white-tailed deer in some parts of the country.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has been studying the virus in wildlife, and the DWR's sample collection was part of that effort.

The presence of the virus in mule deer doesn't have wildlife biologists overly concerned, however.

“While it is confirmed that mule deer are susceptible to this virus, the deer that we took samples from did not show any clinical signs of the illness, and there isn’t any evidence that it is killing mule deer,” DWR State Veterinarian Ginger Stout said in a press release issued Monday. “There is also no evidence that animals, including mule deer, are playing a significant role in spreading SARS-CoV-2 to people, and the available research suggests that the likelihood of getting COVID-19 from an animal is quite low.”

It is not yet known how this mule deer or others were exposed to the delta variant of COVID-19, the DWR says it could have been through other deer, another animal species, or even humans.

The DWR also assures hunters that there is no evidence that people can get COVID-19 by eating meat from an infected animal, but they gave these tips for general food hygiene when processing game meat:

  • Don’t allow contact between wildlife and domestic animals, including pets and hunting dogs.
  • Do not harvest animals that appear sick or are found already dead.
  • Keep game meat clean, and cool the meat down as soon as possible after harvesting the animal.
  • Avoid cutting through the animal’s backbone and spinal tissues, and do not eat the brains of wildlife.
  • When handling and cleaning game meat, wear rubber or disposable gloves. Don’t eat, drink or smoke while handling the meat.
  • When you are finished handling and cleaning the meat, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.