Workers in hospital scrubs care for chimpanzees at Washington state sanctuary

By Deborah Bloom

CLE ELUM, Wash., March 17 (Reuters) - A Washington state sanctuary for chimpanzees once used for scientific research has scaled back its staffing and donned personal protective gear to avoid infecting the primates during the worldwide coronavirus pandemic.

Nestled at the base of the Cascade Mountains, Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest cares for 10 older chimps, most of whom were born in laboratories.

Human respiratory viruses have caused lethal outbreaks among primates. In late 2016, cases of human coronavirus spread to a community of wild chimpanzees in Ivory Coast.

"Our whole population could be considered vulnerable," said Diana Goodrich, who co-founded the sanctuary. "We don't know if the COVID-19 is transmittable to chimpanzees, but we have to assume it is."

As reports of coronavirus cases in Washington began piling up at the beginning of March, Goodrich started to drastically reduce the number of staff members entering the sanctuary.

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Now just a few workers come in each day to help feed and clean the chimps -- wearing medical scrubs, masks, and gloves to reduce chances of exposure.

"We have to assume we're carrying it," Goodrich said of the virus. "Especially because we know you can be completely asymptomatic, but also be carrying it, so we want to put a barrier between our germs and the chimps as much as we can. We're protecting them from us."

Goodrich has postponed the sanctuary's main fundraising event this summer and turned her attention towards the day-to-day operations there, such as regular feedings and keeping the facility clean. Goodrich said she is considering ways to take the fundraising event online.

"I think it'll be a really nice distraction," Goodrich said. "Our supporters will get to see videos of chimps playing and having fun and at least for those few minutes, they don't have to think about the virus." (Reporting by Deborah Bloom in Cle Elum, Washington Editing by Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

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