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Hunting health: COVID-19 risks during gun deer season

Published: Nov. 15, 2021 at 11:17 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 15, 2021 at 6:38 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - With gun deer hunting season quickly approaching, UW Health officials are reminding hunters to make sure their own health is up to snuff before they take to the woods.

The first and foremost advice is to get vaccinated for COVID-19 and influenza if you aren’t already. Also, get your booster shot if you’re eligible. This will help cut the spread of illness in groups of hunters.

“If someone comes to deer camp and they have COVID and other folks aren’t vaccinated, in that enclosed space with the laughing and good times that are had, the likelihood that those other hunters would be infected is pretty high,” said Dr. Jeff Pothof, UW Health emergency medicine physician, chief quality officer, and associate professor of emergency medicine at UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

There have also been reports by the USDA that some white-tailed deer in 32 counties in four states (Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania) had contracted COVID-19. Another study published by bioRxiv, that has not yet been peer reviewed, found COVID-19 exposure in white-tailed deer in Iowa.

Researchers with the USDA don’t know how exactly the deer were exposed, but said it is possible that transmission was through people, other deer, other animals, or the environment.

However, according to the USDA, there is no evidence that animals can spread COVID to humans at this time, nor that a human could get COVID from eating or harvesting animal meat. Therefore, Dr. Pothof said the risk of a hunter contracting COVID-19 from a deer is low.

“For the most part I feel like if you end up harvesting a deer and you know you’re going to do the field dressing and things like that, I don’t think that that’s going to result in significant aerosolization, even if that deer does have COVID-19 in its lungs or in its nasopharynx,” Dr. Pothof said. “This is all speculation, there’s obviously no studies on any of this stuff, but I think the biggest risk to deer hunters is going to be other hunters, not so much the deer.”

Dr. Pothof said it’s also crucial to be mindful of your own physical health. Noting that every year many hunters, especially those who are older or who have comorbidities, have heart attacks from overexerting themselves in the rough terrain.

“An important reminder to folks that maybe aren’t in the best of physical health, if you’re going to enjoy the deer season, do that in a way that doesn’t tax you. Put plans in place so that you aren’t trying to drag your deer out of the woods yourself, you don’t have to traverse marshy or boggy areas or do things that would otherwise not be part of your usual routine.”

Another common reason people end up in the emergency room during deer hunting season, Dr. Pothof said, is from falling out of tree stands. Before climbing up into a tree stand, make sure it’s structurally sound and that you’re connected by a safety harness.

Also be sure to follow gun safety rules, as accidental shootings between hunters and other humans happen almost every year and can be deadly.

Gun deer season runs November 20-28 in Wisconsin.

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