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One Health, COVID-19 and Wildlife Rehabilitation

Updated: Dec 23, 2020

By Lacy Campbell, OWRA Board

According to the CDC, One Health is “is a collaborative, multisectoral, and transdisciplinary approach—working at the local, regional, national, and global levels—with the goal of achieving optimal health outcomes recognizing the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.” As wildlife rehabilitators we intimately know that humans, animals, and their shared environment affect each other. You cannot alter one part without also altering each other. Taking this into account then it is understandable that COVID-19 happened, inevitable even. But what is our role as wildlife rehabilitators in this pandemic? What can we learn?

Wildlife rehabilitators are at the forefront of wildlife morbidity and mortality response. We are able to see the first signs of mortality events like botulism, avicide, pesticide exposure etc — often before the state and federal officials do. We are the on-the-ground response to these crises and according to Colin Gillin, Oregon State Wildlife Veterinarian “you are the tip of the spear for acting on these things.” This makes our work crucial for wildlife and human health.

As wildlife rehabilitators, we see many animals that have the potential to pass infection to people. Raccoons can carry Baylis, bats can carry rabies, birds can carry psittacosis, just to name a few examples. We worry about disease transmissibility to humans, but can often forget that it can go the other way. We are finding with COVID-19 that humans can and have infected other species of animals: big cats, domestic cats, mink, dogs. This has big implications for wildlife rehabilitation; how do we stop transmission of diseases back into populations that have not experienced novel infections?

Currently bats are a restricted species. It is unclear how COVID-19 will affect new world bats. This restriction does not extend to mustelids. It turns out that mustelids don’t have the receptors for the spike proteins. Other mammals like deer do have the receptors which potentially make them susceptible. To ensure humans do not pass COVID-19 to bats in the wild they are restricted while in rehab.

While we are still learning more about COVID-19, the June 2020 ZOHU (Zoonoses & One Health Updates) presentation, the USGS National Wildlife Health Center sees wildlife rehabilitators as important points of contact. Because wildlife rehabilitation of bats requires close contact over a long time period, the chance of a person infected with COVID-19 coming into contact with a bat is increased and therefore the possibility of the bat getting infected is also increased.

Regardless, if new world bats can get COVID-19 like their old world counterparts we must do our part to stop the spread of infection. Thank you for wearing masks and gloves, and for your hard work every day. We know it hasn’t been easy but your work has been and will continue to be crucial for the wildlife out there. Thank you for being sentinels for the animals who can’t report for themselves.

If you suspect that you have an animal with an infectious disease please call the Wildlife Health Lab at 866-968-2600. Want to stay up to date on zoonoses and One Health updates? Check out the ZOHU calls every month from the CDC.

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