For Immediate Release, December 2, 2020

Contact:

Lori Ann Burd, Center for Biological Diversity, (971) 717-6405, laburd@biologicaldiversity.org
Hannah Connor, Center for Biological Diversity, (202) 681-1676, hconnor@biologicaldiversity.org

Oregon Officials Urged to Stop Withholding Information Critical to Protecting Public Health After COVID-19 Outbreak at Oregon Mink Operation

PORTLAND, Ore.— The Center for Biological Diversity has sent a letter to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Health Authority urging the release of information on a November outbreak of COVID-19 at a 12,000-animal mink-fur farming operation in Oregon.

The Dec. 1 letter details how, after refusing to do proactive testing at mink operations, state officials are now refusing to release the same kind of basic information they routinely release following workplace outbreaks, including the name and location of the facility and the number of people infected. Public health officials consider this information essential for members of the public, doctors and contact tracers seeking to stop the current surge in COVID-19 cases.

According to the Center’s letter, “Despite these lags in testing … and the chilling fact that 100% of the animals tested at that facility were found to be positive for the virus, the Agencies, citing privacy concerns, have declined to even vaguely identify where the outbreak is taking place. The Agencies have further declined to revisit their position of passive response to outbreaks in this industry rather than proactive prevention. This is unacceptable.”

The importance of preventing and tracking coronavirus outbreaks at Oregon mink operations is highlighted by the fact that COVID-19 transmission between humans and mink in Denmark have resulted in humans being infected with a mutated strain of the virus that may threaten the efficacy of vaccination efforts.

“It’s inexcusable that Oregon officials are withholding information critical to identifying and protecting anyone exposed to this facility,” said Lori Ann Burd, environmental health director at the Center. “Given the surge in COVID-19 cases, it’s astounding that Oregon’s public health officials are choosing to protect this facility’s secrets rather than public health. It contradicts everything else they’ve said and done regarding the need for transparency to rein in this pandemic.”

On Nov. 6, weeks before the recent outbreak, the Center wrote to the Oregon agencies urging them to take active measures to ensure that COVID-19 was not spreading at Oregon’s mink facilities. That letter followed news that Denmark, the world’s largest mink producer, planned to kill more than 15 million mink after COVID-19 transmission between humans and mink resulted in a mutated strain of COVID-19 being found in at least 12 people.

On Nov. 19 the state agencies responded by refusing to commit to any specific actions to stem the unique threat from mink operations. That same day Oregon recorded its first reported cases of mink experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

“Upon ODA taking representative samples from 10 of the approximately 12,000 mink on that one fur farming operation, all of them came back positive for the virus,” the Center described in its most recent letter to state officials. “Despite the severity of the outbreak concern, it took state regulators four days from reporting to place the operation under quarantine and ask its workers to self-isolate.”

Oregon is home to 11 registered factory farms that contain about 430,000 fur-bearing animals, including mink, as well as an unknown number of smaller mink-rearing operations.

While there have been no confirmed cases yet of mutated COVID-19 in the United States, COVID-19 has hit mink-production facilities across the country. Since August the U.S. Department of Agriculture has announced confirmed cases of COVID-19 in mink at nine Utah mink farming operations, leading to an estimated 10,000 mink deaths. Nearly 3,400 mink died last month after contracting COVID-19 in Wisconsin. COVID-19 cases have also been confirmed in mink in Michigan.

“We need Oregon officials to step up and ensure that the spread of the virus at mink-farming operations doesn’t undermine upcoming vaccination efforts,” said Hannah Connor, a senior attorney at the Center. “Along with releasing basic information, we need the state to take proactive measures like planning for the safe disposal of infected mink carcasses, putting other mink operations under quarantine, and halting mink breeding programs to protect public health.”

Like factory farms that raise animals for food, mink-farming operations have long been known for the risk they pose to the environment, biodiversity and public health. Factory farms and the international wildlife trade are leading breeding grounds for novel and dangerous pathogens like COVID-19.

In July the Center and partners petitioned the USDA to ban unlined burial and onsite incineration for disposing of the millions of industrially raised farm animals killed following COVID-induced slaughter slowdowns.

Some of those risks have been highlighted in Denmark in recent weeks as buried so-called “zombie mink” have risen from the ground creating an additional exposure risk.

Caged minks/Jo-Anne McArthur hashtag MakeFurHistory
Caged minks/Jo-Ann McArthur, #MakeFurHistory Image is available for media use.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.7 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.