Reducing the Risk of SARS-CoV-2 Spreading between People and Wildlife

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What You Need to Know

  • These recommendations may make it less likely for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, to spread between people and wildlife to protect human health, animal health, and minimize adverse public health and conservation outcomes.
  • Currently, there is no evidence that wildlife might be a source of infection for people in the United States.
  • We are still learning about this virus, but we know that it can spread from people to susceptible animal species in some situations, especially after close contact with a person with COVID-19. For this reason, the virus may threaten the health and welfare of wildlife and could negatively impact conservation efforts.
  • Anyone who comes into close proximity or contact with wildlife is encouraged to consider the information below to minimize the spread of SARS-CoV-2 between people and wildlife.

Considerations for Members of the Public

Currently, there is no evidence that wildlife might be a source of infection for people in the United States.

Because wildlife can carry other diseases, even without looking sick, it is always important to enjoy wildlife from a distance.

To prevent getting sick from wildlife in the United States:

  • Keep your family, including pets, a safe distance away from wildlife.
  • Do not feed wildlife or touch wildlife droppings.
  • Always wash your hands and supervise children washing their hands after working or playing outside.
  • Leave orphaned animals alone. Often, the parents are close by and will return for their young.
  • Consult your state wildlife agency’s guidance if you are preparing or consuming legally harvested game meat.
  • Do not approach or touch a sick or dead animal – contact your state wildlife agencyexternal icon

Considerations for Hunters

Currently, there is no evidence that wildlife might be a source of infection for people. However, some wild animals are known to be susceptible to infection, and some non-native wildlife, including big cats and non-human primates, have become infected in captive settings such as zoos (see COVID-19 and Animals for more information).

There is no evidence that you can get COVID-19 by preparing or eating food, including wild hunted game meat in the United States. However, hunters can get infected with many diseases when processing or eating game. Hunters should always practice good hygiene when processing animals by following these food safety recommendations:

  • 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.
  • Keep game meat clean and cool the meat down as soon as possible after harvesting the animal.
  • Avoid cutting through the backbone and spinal tissues and do not eat the brains of wildlife.
  • When handling and cleaning game:
    • Wear rubber or disposable gloves.
    • Do not eat, drink, or smoke.
  • When finished handling and cleaning game:
    • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.
    • Clean knives, equipment, and surfaces that were in contact with game meat with soap and water and then disinfect them.
    • Cook all game meat thoroughly (to an internal temperature of 165°F or higher).
    • Check with your state wildlife agency regarding any testing requirements for other diseases and for any specific instructions regarding preparing, transporting, and consuming game meat.

Hierarchy of Controls to Reduce the Risk of SARS-CoV-2 Spreading between People and Wildlife  

Hierarchy of Controls

The Hierarchy of Controls is a standard tool applied in occupational safety and health practices to minimize exposure to hazards by implementing effective control solutions. The Hierarchy of Controls approach is used in subsequent sections to apply the general Hierarchy of Controls principles to the context of minimizing disease spread between people and wildlife.

Implementing controls near the top of the hierarchy leads to an inherently safer approach than implementing only controls near the bottom. Levels of control are not mutually exclusive and can be combined as needed.

Considerations for State, Federal, Tribal, and Territorial Wildlife Agencies

State, federal, tribal, and territorial domestic animal, wildlife, and public health agencies should continue to evaluate the latest science on wildlife health concerns related to SARS-CoV-2 and engage with national and international experts to assess the chances of SARS-CoV-2 spreading  between wildlife and people.

State, federal, tribal, and territorial wildlife agencies may consider additional restrictions or other measures to reduce the possibility that:

  • Susceptible wildlife are exposed to SARS-CoV-2 by people who are infected;
  • Infected wildlife spread SARS-CoV-2;
  • Infected wildlife spread SARS-CoV-2 back to people in the future.

In studying and trying to prevent COVID-19, agencies may consider additional factors like ongoing local human community spread, biosecurity capabilities of various wildlife research and management activities, and agency legal authorities. As applicable, a Hierarchy of Controls approach can be applied to decision-making around risk mitigation, described above.

Considerations for Agencies or Programs Conducting Wildlife Research, Wildlife Management, and Wildlife Control Activities

Activities that involve being close to or directly handling wildlife can increase the chances that people with COVID-19 could spread the virus to people or animals. Wildlife agencies should consider how wildlife research, management, and control activities could impact both human and animal health. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA) Fish and Wildlife Health Committeepdf iconexternal icon recommends that wildlife scientists, biologists, hunters, trappers, and wildlife control operators comply with existing biosafety and animal handling protocols, observe proper hygiene and disinfection practices, and use appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) when in direct contact with wildlife. Risk mitigation actions should be appropriate for the degree of risk associated with particular wildlife research, management, or control activities, with the understanding that more frequent and prolonged contact between people and animals represents a greater risk of exposure.

There are many ways to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and other zoonotic diseases between people and wildlife when conducting management, research, or control activities. However, the most effective way to prevent transmission between people and animals is to avoid direct contact with wildlife. This could involve suspending fieldwork or other activities that require direct contact with wildlife. Administrative controls and the use of PPE can minimize the risks of transmission, but they can be more prone to failure than the elimination, substitution, and engineering controls depicted in the diagram above and described below. In situations where contact cannot be avoided, or where the risk of transmission is outweighed by the potential benefits of handling wildlife, engineering controls, administrative controls and PPE can help reduce the possibility of disease transmission. Details about each type of control are provided below.

Wildlife Research and Management/Control Activities: Hierarchy of controls to reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 spread between people and wildlife

Elimination Controls

  • Suspend field and other activities that involve direct contact with wildlife during the pandemic.
  • Consider whether the work is an essential or urgent priority, or if it can be delayed or postponed.

Substitution Controls

  • If it is necessary to continue working with wild animals in the field during the pandemic, substitute animal capture or close proximity with remote monitoring methods.
    • For example, acoustic monitoring (for animals like bats), game cameras, or environmental sample collection (such as feces or hair) may be sufficient to replace capture and animal handling.

Engineering Controls

  • Maintain a log of personnel that have conducted fieldwork that involves direct contact with wildlife that are known or suspected to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. At minimum, logs should include personnel names, date(s) of field activities, species they interacted with, and duration of interaction.
  • When possible, consider implementing flexible, non-punitive sick leave policies that help encourage sick employees to stay home.
  • Promote employee mask and social distancing policies, inside and outside of work.
  • If animal capture or close contact is essential, select capture methods that maximize distance between people and wildlife and minimize contact time. For example, culvert traps can be used instead of snares for bear capture.
  • Develop and adhere to a standard protocol for handling and sampling wild animals.
  • Develop and institute training for personnel conducting fieldwork on risk mitigation measures that reduce the risk of transmission between people or people and wildlife.

Administrative Controls

  • Follow public health guidance on quarantine following possible exposures to SARS-CoV-2.
  • Perform regular symptom and temperature checks of personnel and consider requiring COVID-19 testing before field work where direct contact with other personnel or wildlife is necessary.
  • Limit the number of personnel to the minimum necessary to safely complete the task and minimize the number of personnel who have direct contact with wildlife.
  • Wash hands with soap and water or apply hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol before and after physical contact with wildlife, before putting on PPE, after taking off (doffing) PPE, after cleaning or sterilizing equipment, and after using the bathroom.
  • Maintain the same capture team for the duration of the operation to minimize the number of people contacting other people and animals.
  • Keep captured animals separate from each other to the greatest extent possible when capturing and handling or holding.
  • Clean and disinfect all field gear and equipment that may come in contact with wildlife before starting the work, between animals (if warranted), and after finishing the work.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

  • Follow appropriate guidance from the state wildlife authority, CDC, and the US Geological Survey (USGS)pdf iconexternal icon on the use of PPE when handling or working with susceptible wildlife.
  • Wear PPE to protect the wearer from exposure.
    • If the animal being handled is suspected or known to be positive for SARS-CoV-2, or if there is a risk of aerosols being generated by a task or procedure, wear a respiratorexternal icon to prevent nose and mouth exposure to respiratory droplets and sprays and to prevent inhalation of small particles.
    • Respirator use should occur in the context of a complete respiratory protection program in accordance with OSHA Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134)external icon, which includes medical evaluations, training, and fit testing.
  • N95 respirators with an exhalation valve and masks with vents should not be used when working with wildlife because they do not prevent the wearer’s droplets from being released into the immediate environment and may therefore expose animals being handled.
  • Wear protective eyewear, such as face shields or goggles where splashes or sprays could occur.
  • Wear disposable exam gloves or other reusable gloves (e.g., rubber dish-washing gloves) that can be decontaminated and changed between individual animals.
  • Wear dedicated clothing and footwear that can be laundered separately after each field work shift or can be bagged and thrown away immediately after completing the shift. Disposable protective outerwear such as gowns, suits, and boot covers may be appropriate depending on the activity.

Considerations for Wildlife Rehabilitation Facilities

Wildlife rehabilitation is generally regulated at the state and federal level. In states that allow wildlife rehabilitation, most require wildlife rehabilitators follow regulatory requirements and permit conditions. These conditions can include using species-specific housing standards, working with veterinary supervision, and following proper husbandry and biosecurity practices. Ideally, wildlife rehabilitation facilities should be able to ensure general biosecurity and disinfection measures are met for a wide variety of disease-causing agents.

While wildlife rehabilitators should always follow permit conditions, implement general biosecurity measures in their facilities, and follow all regulations in response to the ongoing  COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that they follow additional precautionary measures to reduce the possibility that mammals in their care could be exposed to the virus. These additional precautions are a key component in the success of the risk mitigation actions provided below. It is important to recognize that general stress in captured wildlife, prolonged interaction with humans during captivity, and the unknown health status of the public and other transporters bringing rescued wildlife to rehabilitation facilities may increase the susceptibility of an animal to SARS-CoV-2 exposure and infection.

If rehabilitation is permitted, rehabilitators should maintain wildlife known or presumed to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection only in wildlife rehabilitation facilities where protocols to avoid viral transmission can be followed at all times. If these conditions cannot be met, then it may be appropriate to use a wildlife rehabilitator network (with permission of the wildlife agency) to either transfer the animal or refer the public to another nearby wildlife rehabilitation facility that can meet these protocols.

Developing Risk Mitigation Measures

State, federal, tribal, and territorial wildlife agencies and their wildlife rehabilitators should work together to develop risk-based criteria for which species can and cannot be accepted for wildlife rehabilitation and for approving wildlife species for release. The Hierarchy of Controls approach, introduced above, would be advantageous to mitigate risk.

The most effective way to eliminate the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission to wildlife in wildlife rehabilitation facilities is to suspend or prohibit rehabilitation. However, there can be situations where the benefits of wildlife rehabilitation, when performed in accordance with established policies and guidelines, may outweigh the potential risks of spreading the virus. In those cases, engineering, administrative, and PPE controls can be implemented to mitigate risk.

In addition to implementing a Hierarchy of Controls approach to risk mitigation during the wildlife rehabilitation period, wildlife agencies working with their rehabilitators should develop criteria for release of any known or presumed susceptible wildlife. This should determine the animal’s basic fitness for independent survival in its native habitat, any risk of exposure to the virus, and if pre-release testing of the animal and/or its caretakers is warranted, practical, and/or feasible. Routine testing of animals for SARS-CoV-2 is not recommended. The decision to test an animal, including companion animals, livestock, and wild or zoo animals, should be made collaboratively using a One Health approach between local, state, and/or federal public health and animal health officials.

As additional information on the susceptibility and transmissibility of the virus in different wildlife species becomes available, there may be certain situations in which testing should be considered, in coordination with appropriate wildlife health officials and veterinary diagnostic laboratories (see CDC, OIEpdf iconexternal icon, and IUCNexternal icon guidance).

Wildlife Rehabilitation Activities: Hierarchy of controls to reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 spread between people and wildlife

Elimination Controls

  • Consider suspending or prohibiting rehabilitation of species with known or suspected susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 (e.g., felids, mustelids, bats).

Substitution Controls

  • N/A

Engineering Controls

  • Maintain a log of personnel that have direct contact with wildlife patients that are known or suspected to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2. At minimum, logs should include personnel name, date(s) of contact, species they interacted with, and duration of interaction.
  • When possible, consider implementing flexible, non-punitive sick leave policies that help encourage sick employees to stay home.
  • Promote employee mask and social distancing policies, inside and outside of work.
  • Follow CDC COVID-19 ventilation guidelines to improve ventilation in the facility.
  • Minimize frequent human proximity to susceptible species by keeping patients of those species isolated in properly ventilated areas.
  • Place footbaths containing a solution of an EPA-listed disinfectantexternal icon for use against SARS-CoV-2 at entry and exit points in areas housing susceptible species. Scrub boots with a boot brush before stepping in footbaths to remove organic material. Change footbath solutions at least once per day, since some disinfectants are not effective in the presence of organic matter.
  • Distance enclosures used for susceptible species at least 6 feet apart. The use of a solid barrier between enclosures (e.g., between open mesh style small cages) may also help to minimize transmission of virus through the air.
  • Do not allow contact between wildlife, pests, and domestic animals and rehabilitation patients in outdoor cages; consider placement of a cover over cages or double fencing.
  • Since SARS-CoV-2 may be shed in feces, ensure regular removal of feces with proper disposal based on state/local ordinances.
  • Use an EPA-listed disinfectantexternal icon for use against SARS-CoV-2 on all non-disposable equipment used in the capture, handling, transport, rehabilitation, and husbandry of susceptible wildlife.
  • Develop and institute training for personnel on risk mitigation measures that reduce the risk of transmission between people or people and wildlife patients.

Administrative Controls

  • Develop and periodically update an emergency response plan to ensure continuity of operations during any type of emergency or disease outbreak. The plan should include contingencies for staff rotations or minimal dedicated staffing; animal care; food, water, and medical supplies; power and utilities supply; communications; and reporting human and animal health concerns to authorities. For SARS-CoV-2, this should include the facility policy for self-reporting of any SARS-CoV-2 positive staff and volunteers.
  • People who may have been exposed to COVID-19 or who have symptoms consistent with COVID-19 should stop contact with wildlife and follow recommendations for quarantine.
  • Report to the state and/or federal wildlife agency any SARS-CoV-2 susceptible wildlife with possible exposure to a person with COVID-19, especially animals that are displaying clinical signs consistent with SARS-CoV-2 infection.
  • If possible, establish dedicated teams of staff and volunteers who work together in rotating work shifts (e.g., 1 week on /1 week off) to minimize the potential spread of COVID-19 between workers.
  • Isolate animals with respiratory (coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge) or gastrointestinal signs (diarrhea, vomiting). Limit staff contact and use appropriate PPE. Contact a veterinarian to arrange care.
  • Avoid unnecessary handling or other contact with susceptible species and limit the number of staff who handle members of these species.
  • Implement a sequence for handling wildlife in rehabilitation:
    • First: Handle or treat susceptible animals.
    • Last: Handle or treat animals that have clinical signs compatible with SARS-CoV-2 in an isolated area.
    • All other animals should be treated between these two groups, keeping in mind to handle younger animals before adult animals.
    • Ideally, separate staff would be assigned to care for each group, or for limited staffing, handle/treat in the sequence listed.
  • Pre-arrange backup caregivers for all animals undergoing rehabilitation.
  • Follow guidelines in the NWRA/IWRC “Minimum Standards for Wildlife Rehabilitation, 4th editionpdf iconexternal icon” to include daily cleaning and disinfection of the facility.
  • Wash hands with soap and water or apply hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol before and after physical contact with patients, before putting on PPE, after taking off (doffing) PPE, after cleaning or sterilizing equipment, and after using the bathroom.
  • Work with state wildlife health, animal health, and public health authorities to determine if samples should be collected from rehabilitated animals (if feasible) and submitted to designated veterinary diagnostic laboratories for SARS-CoV-2 testing.
  • Have initial quarantine protocol and procedures in place for newly admitted patients as well as strict biosecurity protocols that can help to inform release criteria development.
    • Conduct ‘just-in-time’ training for staff and volunteers on basic biosecurity principles and practices.  At a minimum, those working in close contact with wildlife should review the appropriate methods for donning and doffing PPE prior to working with the animals in rehabilitation facilities.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

  • Follow appropriate guidance from the state wildlife authority, CDC, and the US Geological Survey (USGS)pdf iconexternal icon on the use of PPE when handling or working with susceptible wildlife.
  • Wear PPE to protect the wearer from exposure.
    • If the animal being handled is suspected or known to be positive for SARS-CoV-2, or if there is a risk of aerosols being generated by a task or procedure, wear a respiratorexternal icon to prevent nose and mouth exposure to respiratory droplets and sprays and to prevent inhalation of small particles.
    • Respirator use should occur in the context of a complete respiratory protection program in accordance with OSHA Respiratory Protection standard (29 CFR 1910.134)external icon, which includes medical evaluations, training, and fit testing.
  • N95 respirators with an exhalation valve and masks with vents should not be used when working with wildlife because they do not prevent the wearer’s droplets from being released into the immediate environment and may, therefore, expose animals being handled.
  • Wear protective eyewear, such as face shields or goggles where splashes or sprays could occur.
  • Wear disposable exam gloves or other reusable gloves (e.g., rubber dish-washing gloves) that can be decontaminated and changed between individual animals.
  • Wear dedicated clothing and footwear that can be laundered separately after shifts or can be bagged and thrown away immediately after completing the shift. Disposable protective outerwear such as gowns, suits, and boot covers may be appropriate depending on the activity. Dedicated outerwear that can be changed between patients may be appropriate when working with susceptible species or animals with known exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
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