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

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 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

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 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 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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