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Pandemic realities: Could veterinary hospitals be forced to close?

2020-2-23 iStock-958672700 - Roxanne #3 - blog.jpg

During the COVID-19 pandemic state of emergency, veterinary practices may be forced to close for two reasons:

  1. Governments do not include them on lists of essential businesses that can remain open even when communities order limits on the movement of residents and the operation of businesses.
  2. A practice team member is diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus.

Calls for clarity

AAHA along with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA), the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), and other local organizations have called on lawmakers around the world to classify veterinary services as essential businesses so that they may remain open—with appropriate COVID-19 precautions and limitations in place—if/when communities go on lockdown.

For now, it seems these decisions are being made at local levels. Several cities and counties ordered residents to shelter in place and nonessential businesses to close entirely or greatly modify their operation well before the states they are in made similar orders statewide. Dallas County in Texas is the most recent example. The county did name veterinary services as essential.

Squishy language

Shelter-in-place terminology confuses people since it’s often used during acute natural disasters or active shooter scenarios, where public safety directives indeed mean people should not go outside at all.

At this stage, that is not what governmental agencies mean during the ongoing pandemic. Even when these orders go into place, people may still venture out to do essential tasks such as get food or prescriptions or seek nonelective medical care for themselves and, in some cases, for their pets. People can even walk their dogs outside in public if they maintain social distance (six feet currently).

This confusion is one reason California calls its protocols “Safer at Home.” Some in the public health community encourage governments to use more concrete language. Rather than saying, “Practice social distancing,” some now recommend saying, “Stay at home. Get groceries once per week,” so that people gain better understanding about what is and isn’t allowed. 

The essential question

In its list of Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce, the US Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency includes veterinary services as essential to food and agriculture production. It does not specifically list companion animal services, but many states have included veterinary services on their own lists of essential businesses when putting community restrictions in place.

In the ever-shifting news environment, this list will continue to change, but as of March 23, 2020, we’ve been able to confirm that these states consider veterinary services as essential or critical, which means they can remain open—with proper precautions taken and within limitations set forth such as not doing any elective surgeries (e.g., spay/neuter):

  • California
  • Colorado
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Nevada
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Ohio
  • Pennsylvania

Several states have based their decisions on what appears to be the same chart of essential services. However, that chart does not specifically say veterinarian/veterinary hospitals in the healthcare section. Some states that use this list have not specifically included veterinary hospitals in their official orders, but other states that use this same list have named veterinary services as essential.

Your best chance at gaining clarity on the essential question is to seek official statements from your mayor or governor or local veterinary medical associations. As an example, Colorado posts all executive orders relating to the pandemic in one location online. Check for something similar in your area by searching for “[state] executive orders.”

Canadian orders

According to the CVMA site, so far only Prince Edward Island has specifically named veterinarians as essential. Other provinces have not made anything official, but there is a Change.org petition calling on Ontario not to shut down veterinary hospitals.

Decision point: Even if your state, province, city, or county deems veterinary hospitals essential businesses, practices are not required to remain open if the owners or leadership deem it better for staff and clients to close.

COVID-19 diagnosis in a team member

Public health officials in Wisconsin ordered the closure of the school of veterinary medicine building at the University of Wisconsin–Madison March 16, 2020, when an employee who works in the building tested positive for COVID-19 after traveling to a country with widespread transmission.

Starting on March 19, the facility opened on a limited basis to current patients needing ongoing treatments such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and amino acid infusions and to other medically necessary appointments. It also reopened for emergency services. However, it’s still unable to get back to business as usual due to staffing shortages with exposed team members in quarantine.

Decision point: In cases where an onsite team member is diagnosed with the virus, the decision to shut down will be dictated by the department of public health.

Life under lockdown

Animal Care Wellness Center is in San Bernardino, California, which became one of the first communities to shut down all nonessential businesses. Niza DiCarlo, the practice’s co-owner and director of human resources, explains that with key adaptive efforts, the facility continues to serve patients.

DiCarlo offers the following tips to fellow AAHA members who may soon face similar community restrictions:

  • Use social media to communicate with your clients about curbside service.
  • Assign one person each day to sanitize all door handles, counters, and high-frequency area surfaces with disinfectant cleaner five times per day. Post a disinfecting checklist in the treatment area, so the assigned team member can mark the list each time a disinfecting round gets done.
  • If team members are feeling any symptoms (fever and coughing), ask them to stay home.

DiCarlo says, “We have made it clear to staff that if they need to stay home, they may do so and not worry about losing their jobs.”

Photo credit: © iStock/onurdongel