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How the new COVID surge could affect veterinary hospitals

Experts have been predicting a fall surge in COVID cases since last spring.

With COVID cases spiking, including the nearly 11,000,000 cases in the US, the long-awaited surge is here.

Veterinary hospitals took extraordinary measures in the spring to cope with the initial onslaught of the coronavirus, with most going curbside, rationing personal protective equipment (PPE), and instituting strict safety protocols for staff. Now that the other shoe has finally dropped, what can hospitals expect next?

It depends on where you are.

Every region of the country is subject to different COVID safety protocols, and different regions are instituting different restrictions, so there are no one-size-fits-all answers as to what hospitals can expect.

But NEWStat reached out to several state veterinary associations around the country that are working closely with local health agencies to get a general idea of what your hospital can expect.

Colorado

Colorado has seen a dramatic spike in reported COVID cases. The city of Denver isn’t taking any chances and has instituted a new curfew, among other restrictions. However, there’s no indication that additional citywide or statewide safety protocols would include canceling elective surgeries for veterinary hospitals as happened in spring.

Katherine Wessels, director of communications for the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), says her organization is encouraging hospitals to continue doing curbside to keep their teams and communities safe.

“There was some confusion in the spring about whether a veterinarian should cancel vaccinations in addition to surgeries,” Wessels noted. But she added that the CVMA doesn’t want to put additional strain on the public health system with additional disease outbreaks in pet populations that could have been prevented. “With that in mind, we encourage practices to continue essential vaccinations for patients regardless of the status on [whether] elective surgeries [are permitted].”

And while CVMA staff haven’t heard about any pending PPE shortages in Colorado, Wessels says it’s still important for hospitals to actively monitor their PPE inventory and stay aware of their current supplies.

In general, Wessels says the CVMA continues to recommend that hospitals follow current COVID-19 protocols to the greatest extent possible, which include wearing masks, social distancing when possible, and washing hands frequently. “Our veterinary professionals are a crucial part of the public health response,” she said. “It’s essential to keep them as healthy as possible.”

New York

Tim Atkinson, executive director of the New York State Veterinary Medical Society, says the state mandated that all veterinary hospitals go curbside last spring, and that mandate hasn’t changed: “We expect it to remain in place through spring of 2021.” He noted that New York State agencies have been very successful at containing COVID outbreaks, and tends to tighten up safety precautions in COVID hotspots—which, to date, don’t include veterinary hospitals. “There is no evidence that animal hospitals have contributed to the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “Veterinary medicine is classified as an essential service, and we don’t anticipate that changing.

Wellness visits won’t go away, either: “The Department of Health is adamant that vaccines for zoonotic diseases are kept up to date, and that drives many wellness visits.”

Atkinson repeats that in New York, it’s all about the hotspots: “The successful COVID-containment strategies have been very geographically focused,” he noted. That being said, “Statewide, animal hospitals will need to continue to follow [established COVID safety protocols] while continuing usual operations.”

As in most of the country, demand for veterinary services in New York State is very high, so burnout is an ever-present danger. Atkinson says veterinarians and technicians were already in short supply, and the situation is becoming far worse: “Wait times, even in emergency hospitals, are growing longer, and hospitals need to work harder to identify urgent cases and make sure they get the help they need immediately. That will inevitably lengthen the wait for elective surgeries.”

Clients unhappy with curbside service are another stressor: “While veterinarians adopt measures that they believe are important for public health, they also face the frustration of pet owners who don’t believe these measures are necessary,” said Atkinson.

As much as clients might want to be with their pets in the exam room, they’re still a long way from that in New York. And, sadly, much of the rest of the country.

But the safer we stay during this surge, the sooner that’ll happen for everyone.

Wisconsin

Wisconsin is experiencing one of the biggest COVID surges in the country. A call to the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association (WVMA) resulted in a reply from an unexpected source: Douglas Kratt, DVM, past president of the WVMA (2008–2009), and current president of the AVMA.

“Many practices [in Wisconsin] remain at curbside service or have adopted a modified curbside service for emergencies and potential end-of-life conversations,” Kratt said of the situation in the Dairy State.

As for wellness visits, elective surgeries, and vaccinations, Kratt said those depend on several factors: “How is the PPE supply, and what are the risks of postponing the wellness visit? Will we start seeing an upswing of preventable diseases with the delay of [wellness] care? Will it cause a cascade effect on other things as well?”

There’s been no official ruling from state health agencies on these activities as of yet, and Kratt said, “As long as these services can be provided safely, I suspect many [hospitals] will continue to offer preventive care.”

Kratt said hospitals in Wisconsin should continue to evaluate and adjust the COVID protocols that they adopted back in March. “It’s also important to be aware of the mental and physical stresses on the veterinary team,” Kratt added. “On November 9, Wisconsin launched the Veterinary Professional Assistance Program to provide personal, confidential guidance, coaching, and counseling for all veterinary professionals and their household members. The WVMA and AVMA also have resources available to help keep veterinary businesses viable and their teams safe during COVID, so they can continue to provide services to the patients under their care.”

That’s sound advice for any hospital, no matter what part of the country you’re in.

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