Caught between COVID and a hot place: AAHA hospitals on the West Coast carry on


Between COVID-19 and the wildfires, West Coast hospitals can’t catch a break.

If they’re not trying to check in patients while socially distancing at the curbside as ash and smoke swirl around them, they’re having to leave work so they can evacuate homes and loved ones from the path of wildfires, adding to the stress of already-beleaguered staff.

It’s a bad situation, and it’s hard to say whether it’s getting any better. No sooner is one fire reported largely contained than another fire breaks out: according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s (CAL FIRE) daily update for Wednesday, September 9, “While containment on many of last month’s lightning fires grows closer, several new wildfires ignited and were fanned by strong gusty winds.” CAL FIRE reported that “approximately 14,000 firefighters are battling 28 major wildfires across the state.”

To date, wildfires have burned almost two million acres in California. Fifteen people have died, and more than 4,000 structures have been damaged or destroyed. The situation is out of control in Oregon and Washington as well, with about a million acres scorched in each state this past week.

Many veterinary hospitals on the West Coast have had to close their doors temporarily, either due to COVID-related staff shortages or wildfire-related evacuations. AAHA practice consultant B.L. Blain, whose territory encompasses the 462 AAHA-accredited practices in the State of California, told NEWStat that most of the practices he’s been in touch with are close to a fire.

Blain said hospitals in major cities like Los Angeles aren’t really seeing much of an impact from the fires, but hospitals in outlying areas are a different story: “Half the state’s on fire,” he said. Most of the practices he’s in contact with are very close to a fire. “Most of the [hospitals] I’ve talked to say they’re having some issue with a fire,” and he’s had three practices request evaluation delays because somebody in the practice had to evacuate their home.

Blain said that despite the double-whammy of COVID and wildfires, or maybe because of them, most accredited practices in California are very busy. “Many smaller practices in the [same] towns are closing temporarily, either because someone in the practice got COVID or because staff’s evacuating due to the fires.”

Gregory Marsolais, DVM, MS, DACVS, founder and chief surgeon at Pet Specialists of Monterey in Monterey, California, the 2019 AAHA-Accredited Referral Practice of the Year, was swamped but managed to find a few minutes to chat with NEWStat by phone.

Marsolais said that at one point, his hospital was threatened by wildfires in three directions; at the time he spoke with NEWStat, the River Fire in Salinas was about seven miles away. A number of his staff were evacuated from their homes, including him, but he said he was one of the lucky ones who was allowed back home after a few days. “Our hospital administrator has been out of her house for almost two weeks.”

They never had to close their doors, which he said was “not really an option.” As a referral hospital, they’re working at capacity supporting the general practice hospitals in the area.

Most of the big fires in their area have been contained, but Marsolais says that when it comes to wildfires in California, you never really get to a point where you can relax. “I think fire season is year-round now. You don’t get used to it.”

He said that the air quality in Monterey is so bad that all employees working curbside are wearing N95 masks simply in order to breathe. The air is thick with debris, and the amount of smoke is unbelievable. 

He added that he doesn’t think his hospital’s situation is unique, either. “So much of California is on fire.”

Which is the case for Oregon and Washington as well.

We’re thinking about our West Coast colleagues right now, and, like the rest of the country, hoping the winds die down and rain starts to fall soon.

Photo credit: © Gettyimages/Dave Alan