Minks, misconceptions and COVID-19 prevention: What Utah’s state veterinarian and a mink farmer want you to know

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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (ABC4 News) – Research has found millions of minks throughout the world are being infected with COVID-19 – including right here in Utah. The state’s veterinarian addressing misconceptions and the prevention measures mink farmers are taking.

Headlines throughout the world continue to report millions of minks are dying from COVID-19 outbreaks on mink farms.

And now, some reports say a mutated form of the virus is being transmitted from mink to people.

But Utah’s state veterinarian Dr. Dean Taylor said at this time, data here does not suggest mink are a threat to people.

“To date, nothing has shown that virus has gone the other direction,” Taylor said. “However, we’re still watching for that to happen and we’re going to listen to those reports when they come out.”

Just as this deadly virus has spread rapidly throughout people, Taylor said so it has been with mink.

He says in Utah, 12 of more than 30 farms have reported COVID-19 outbreaks. The virus has killed nearly 12,000 minks from unintentional human-exposure.

“Currently, all of our data suggests that this came from workers or owners to their mink farm and then from there, spread rapidly throughout the facility,” Taylor said.

While Utah’s data are currently not comparable to reports coming from Denmark and the Netherlands, Taylor said his focus is to help farmers and the mink industry.

“Our biggest concern is helping mitigate their losses and help them understand how to go forward safely with their livelihood and their industry and alleviate suffering on these farms,” he said.

Since Utah began seeing mink farm outbreaks, Taylor said officials continue to work with mink farmers to limit the possibility of future exposure.

“If we can have some solid plans in place, we can mitigate the losses and make that risk less, and so really that’s what our focus is,” he said.

“They put the mask on, fresh clothes, coveralls, boots, latex gloves, and then they go to work,” said third-generation mink farmer Clayton Beckstead.

Beckstead said the mink losses are a devastation to the industry.

“I could be the next guy, right? I could be that next farm that has an outbreak and that’s the end of it,” he said.

Beckstead is a Utah mink farmer who is also the vice president of Fur Commission USA. He hopes people can recognize that mink farm outbreaks put people’s livelihoods at stake.

“You know, people wake up and go to their jobs everyday, this is our job, this is how we pay our bills, this is how I provide food for my kids, and be understanding and sensitive to that,” he said.

And with the situation heightening awareness, Beckstead said he and his staff are extra vigilant when checking on their mink.

“Anything that looks unhealthy, we quarantine those mink, monitor them and really keep a close eye on things,” he said.

And for the possibility that any farm could be impacted by COVID-19, Beckstead said he and his staff are checking their mink daily.

“We’re out there, we’re among the mink, we’re looking for symptoms every day, all day it seems like,” he said. “Anything that looks unhealthy, we quarantine those mink and monitor them and really keep a close eye on things.”

To really limit the virus’ spread among mink, Taylor said a vaccine is needed.

“Without a vaccine, long-term concerns would be reinfection over and over because people don’t know they’re sick,” Taylor said.

Taylor said scientists are working to create one, and he, along with Beckstead, hope it’s soon.  

“Once vaccines are out, I will feel a lot more comfortable with our industry that we’ll be able to protect them,” Taylor said.

“I pray every day that a vaccine is close and that we can get a handle on this,” Beckstead said.

Taylor told ABC4 News COVID-19 has been found in other animals, but mink are the highest infected.

“None of them have the same response we’re seeing in mink,” he said.

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