The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fourth state confirms mink farm coronavirus outbreaks as U.S. looks to avoid Denmark’s disaster

Mink in a pen in Denmark in early November. (Mads Claus Rasmussen/AP)

Last Friday, while the Danish government was reeling from yet another coronavirus-related mink scandal — this time the corpses of so-called “zombiemink” surfacing because of improper burial after culling — a more modest but still troubling report was unfolding nearly 5,000 miles away in the United States: Oregon had become the fourth state to confirm a coronavirus outbreak on a domestic mink farm.

At least 10 minks and an undisclosed number of human farmworkers tested positive for the coronavirus, the U.S. Agriculture Department confirmed Friday. The infected animals were ordered isolated, sparing the American minks from the grim fate of their European counterparts: Danish minks were culled en masse weeks earlier after scientists discovered they carried a mutated strain of the virus that if spread back to humans could reduce the efficacy of a potential vaccine.

So far, no mutation has been detected in U.S. minks and health and agricultural experts agree the risk of humans contracting the virus from minks is low — two factors that buoy the hopes of American mink farmers who are watching the pandemic devastate some of the world’s largest mink producers abroad.

“We certainly don’t want to have happen here what happened in Europe,” said Bob Zimbal, a third-generation mink farmer who owns the Zimbal Minkery in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., one of the largest farms in the state.

“We’ve been very proactive since April,” Zimbal told The Washington Post by phone Monday after finishing the day’s work. “There were guidelines set up with the CDC before this outbreak on how to handle a potential pandemic.”

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The U.S. mink industry is nowhere near the density and output of European farms — the United States produces roughly 3 million mink pelts a year compared to Denmark’s 17 million — which are among the reasons farmers, industry and health experts don’t see outbreaks as yielding the kind of carnage seen on Danish farms.

On farms like Zimbal’s, workers maintain biosecurity by checking temperatures, having workers shower as they enter and leave the farm, wearing designated work clothing and using PPE while handling animals.

“The big thing is, if someone is exposed, that they don’t come to work,” Zimbal said. “That’s a challenge, because the animals need to be cared for, and if people are missing, it puts more stress on the people are there.”

The ability to take leave from work and access proper health care is a critical part of protecting farmworkers, said Peter Rabinowitz, who directs the University of Washington’s Center for One Health Research and focuses on the links among human, animal and environmental health.

“In general, we have much better health programs for workers who work in human health care or in factories than we do for workers who work on animal farms,” Rabinowitz told The Post.

There are about 275 mink farms spread among 23 states; to date, 16 mink farms have had coronavirus outbreaks in Utah, Wisconsin, Michigan and Oregon, according to figures provided to The Post by the USDA.

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The number of farmworkers infected from the outbreaks is less clear; citing privacy reasons, a spokeswoman for the Oregon Department of Agriculture declined to identify the name of the farm, which county the farm is in, how many farmworkers tested positive and what their conditions were as of Monday.

To animal and environmental advocates, the privacy concerns are a smokescreen for an industry they say has been allowed to operate in relative secrecy — and that the lack of transparency from the mink farming industry now poses a public health risk.

“ODA is rushing to protect this industry’s secret instead of rushing to protect public health,” Lori Ann Burd told The Post on Monday. “At the very, very minimum, they need to disclose where this outbreak occurred so county officials can be on the on the lookout.”

Burd, the environmental health director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), an advocacy group that focuses on environmental protection and habitat loss, said mink farms were on her group’s radar because of the effect pollution from animal farms in general can have on nearby habitats and the belief that mink farms are less regulated than our poultry farms because minks aren’t farmed for food.

Just weeks before the Oregon outbreak was confirmed, Burd’s group sent a letter to Oregon state health officials calling for a public investigation into the coronavirus and links to U.S.-based mink farms and warning that opaque farming practices could threaten public health.

“I hate being right in these situations, but it was foreseeable. And preventable,” Burd said. “Knowing what we know — that mink and humans transmit covid between species very freely — the state should have sprung into action. Oregon was not the first.”

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Rabinowitz, the University of Washington doctor, said at this juncture, outbreaks on U.S. mink farms aren’t a reason to panic, but added that “there is a need to investigate and closely monitor the situation.”

“This is not a time to be complacent, either, and say, ’There’s no risk, don’t worry about it,’ ” Rabinowitz added.

Burd said that the pandemic may finally be the time to phase out U.S. mink farming altogether and that CBD will call for state’s supporting buyouts for farmers.

Michael Whelan, spokesman for Fur Commission USA, a trade group representing mink farmers, thinks even if buyouts were offered, few mink farmers would take them.

“Mink farmers are unique: This is what they’ve done their whole lives, this is what they know,” Whelan said. “Many have been handling and caring for mink since they were toddlers. No one I know wants to get out of the industry.”