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Mink farm workers await vaccine as industry’s viability questioned

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MADISON (WKOW) -- State officials are recommending workers at Wisconsin's mink farms be included in the next phase of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, as animal welfare groups urge the disease threat prompt an industry shutdown.

In October, officials said an outbreak among mink on a farm in Taylor County represented the second, confirmed case in the nation of the virus among animals in an industrial farm setting. Virus outbreak among mink at a Utah farm also took place.

A sub-committee evaluating who to include in the state's Phase 1B of COVID-19 vaccine distribution recommended workers in mink husbandry.

"International outbreaks associated with mink husbandry have resulted in
genomic changes of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. These changes are concerning and pose a biosecurity risk for the current vaccine campaign. Vaccine should be prioritized for this group to reduce the risk that mink variants with spike-protein mutations will spread from animals to humans and potentially reduce vaccine effectiveness," according to a statement from the Vaccine Distribution Subcommittee of the Wisconsin State Disaster Medical Advisory Committee."

"The worry is that it's just a matter of a generation or two of this virus before it mutates into a different form that is resistant to both any human vaccine as well as any vaccine that might be given to the mink," says Scott Beckstead of the Washington, D.C.-based animal welfare group, Animal Wellness Action.

Beckstead says officials in the Netherlands were already considering constraints on the mink farming industry over the restrictive treatment of the animals when COVID-19 was discovered in the mink population. He says officials of that country moved to cull all mink on farms and effectively shut down the industry.

"With the coronavirus, that just spurred the government of the Netherlands to ramp up their efforts to do it faster," Beckstead says.

Bob Zimbal operates Zimbal Mink in Sheboygan and is continuing a family business that's been in existence for decades. He calls actions in Europe to kill off all farm mink over COVID-19 "an overreaction," and says vaccine availability for those involved in farm operations is the proper course of action.

Zimbal says his work force is eager to obtain the vaccine, after staff members have missed time on the job if any virus symptoms surfaced.

"People are out, the animals still need care for," Zimbal says. "It's been a challenging year for us, but that's why we are looking for a vaccine issue."

State statistics show mink farm production is a more than $200 million industry in Wisconsin. Until recently, processing of mink pelts was carried out by a multinational firm with a location in Dane County.

Beckstead has asked state leaders to consider approving funds to allow a shift away from mink farming. "What we have proposed is a program that shuts down these industrial mink farms, but also compensates these producers so that they have the means to go into another type of agriculture," he says.

As with actions in Europe, the plan would involve eradicating all animals on mink farms. Beckstead maintains mink are being raised to eventually be culled, and that their condition on farms is poor due to the restricted environment. Zimbal argues mink are treated ethically and appropriately within the industry.

Zimbal says the current, best course of action with farm workers is the priority for vaccine as recommended by the state health subcommittee.

"Protection of the public," Zimbal says of the recommendation's likely result is followed. "There's concern about spreading it because of the mink and the spreading back to people."

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Tony Galli

Reporter, WKOW

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