JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Wildlife officials will begin distributing rabies vaccine packets by aircraft this week in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Carolina.

The goal of the program is to control rabies in raccoons by dropping oral rabies vaccine bait packets out of low-flying helicopters and aircraft. The packets’ smell attracts animals like raccoons, who eat them and become vaccinated against rabies.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health, USDA’s Wildlife Services will distribute the packets in East Tennessee based on the following schedule:

Helicopter Distribution (urban areas)

  • Oct. 3 to Oct. 8: Hamilton and Bradley counties
  • Oct. 8 to Oct. 11: Greene, Hawkins, Sullivan, Carter, Unicoi, and Washington counties

Aircraft Distribution (rural areas)

  • Oct. 6 to Oct. 10: Carter, Cocke, Greene, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi, and Washington counties
  • Oct. 10 to Oct.15: Bledsoe, Bradley, Hamilton, Marion, McMinn, Meigs, Monroe, Polk, Rhea, and Sequatchie counties

The USDA says bait packets will also be distributed in several western North Carolina counties, including Ashe, Madison, Mitchell, and Yancey counties between Oct. 6–16.

When dropping the packets, aircraft operators avoid dropping them on roadways, structures, and large bodies of water. Each packet is marked with a phone number (1-877-722-6725) for information or assistance regarding the vaccine packets.

The packets are covered in a fishmeal coating to make them appetizing to animals.

Wildlife officials say that while the packets are safe for humans, dogs, and cats, it is best to leave them undisturbed.

The USDA offers these precautions for people and pets:

  • Bait packets should be removed from where your pet could easily find and eat them.
  • If you or your pet finds a bait packet, confine your pet and look for other baits in the area. Wear gloves or use a towel to toss the bait packet into a wooded or fencerow area.
  • Do not try to remove a bait packet from your pet’s mouth, as you could be bitten.
  • If eaten, one bait packet won’t harm your pet, but consuming several might upset your pet’s stomach.
  • The bait packets will have a strong, fishmeal smell. Even though there is no harm in touching undamaged bait packets, always wear gloves or use a towel whenever you pick up a bait packet.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water if the bait packet has ruptured.
  • Instruct children to leave bait packets alone.
  • A warning label on each bait packet advises people not to touch the bait, and contains the rabies information line telephone number.

The USDA says more than 1.8 million baits will be distributed in western North Carolina, Southwest Virginia, East Tennessee, northern Georgia, and northeast Alabama.