Mink producers considered for Wisconsin's next round of COVID-19 vaccines

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Mink producers considered for Wisconsin’s next round of COVID-19 vaccines.

A state subcommittee is recommending that those working on Wisconsin mink farms be included in the next phase of COVID-19 vaccination distribution along with those over 70, non-EMS first responders, education and childcare workers, and non-frontline health care personnel – all deemed as front line essential workers based on the essential nature of their jobs, difficulty identifying trained replacements, or unique circumstances of employment.

The State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee (SDMAC) established the subcommittee tasked with creating guidance for the Department of Health Services (DHS) prioritizing the allocation of the limited number of vaccine doses. Government and health care bodies must ration the available vaccines until production and distribution of the vaccine ramps up.

In October 2020, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources announced positive cases of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, on a Taylor County mink farm. The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) reported that nearly 3,400 mink have died from the coronavirus at the Taylor County farm.

According to the report, subcommittee members opined that mink husbandry is inclusive within the ACIP definition, but should be prioritized before other similar occupations as there are specific risks associated with the mink population.

Risks highlighted in the rationale for inclusion on the list includes proximity to the animals creating a biosecurity risk, the disease being easily transmitted between human and mink populations and farmed mink serving as a large reservoir of the virus.

"Each opportunity to pass between species allows an opportunity for the virus to mutate (e.g., mink variants)," the report noted.

The subcommittee pointed out in the report that viral mutations associated with mink populations in Denmark were strongly correlated with positive human infection, and included 7 different changes to the spike protein that could render the current vaccines potentially less or totally ineffective.

In addition, alternative mitigation efforts to prevent further transmission of the disease between infected mink and their human caretakers were "ineffective".

In Denmark, the government ordered that all infected and non-infected mink be culled resulting in the death of roughly 15 million animals.

The benefits of vaccinating mink farm workers would help reduce the potential of mink variants by limiting the susceptible population of humans who can transmit the virus to or acquire infection from contact with mink.

Currently, the SDMAC recommends vaccinations be limited only those actively engaged with live animals and pelts (January 8, 2020). The Subcommittee is recommending the DHS staff expand the population eligible for vaccination. 

The draft report notes that Wisconsin has 21 mink farms located in 13 counties with an estimated population of 300 workers in direct contact with mink or mink pelts. 

As DHS continues its considerations for COVID-19 vaccine distributions, Wisconsin DATCP Secretary Randy Romanski said he invites everyone in agriculture to take part by submitting comments.

“SDMAC considers all the needs that are out there, and they are following guidelines to make sure they try to get the vaccine out as quickly as possible to as many people as possible,” Romanski said. “We’ve been encouraging the agriculture industry to make sure they’re participating in that program so their voices are heard.”

The subcommittee is taking public recommendations until Jan. 18 at 4 p.m. They can be submitted to DSHSSDMAC@dhs.wisconsin.gov with “vaccine subcommittee” and “Phase 1B” in the subject line.