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Parsing the CDC’s interim guidance on safe hospital protocols

With mask restrictions now lifted in most US states and with most states scheduled to be fully open with a few restrictions by July 4, many veterinary professionals are wondering what’s on the horizon as far as safety protocols.

The AVMA is working with the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to update its Interim Infection Prevention and Control Guidance for Veterinary Clinics Treating Companion Animals During the COVID-19 Response, which hasn’t been updated since August 2020. In the meantime, the CDC issued its interim advice for safe clinic protocols, which the AVMA published on its website on June 4. If you haven’t seen it, it’s brief and to the point:

Veterinary clinics should follow masking guidance for the general public. While veterinarians are considered clinicians, the settings in which they work are not used to treat humans with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, and instances of animal-to-human transmission appear to be very rare. Veterinary clinics should consider local transmission and vaccination rates when creating clinic policies for PPE use and interactions with clients.

There’s not a lot of meat on those bones. How should hospitals parse it?

NEWStat reached out to Jason W. Stull, VMD, MPVM, PhD, DACVPM, assistant professor of veterinary preventive medicine at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, and chair of AAHA’s Infection Control, Prevention, and Biosecurity Guidelines Task Force, to get his take.

“My take on that statement is that CDC is encouraging those working at veterinary practices to consider themselves similar to other nonhealthcare professions when it comes to mask use,” he said. For example, retail businesses: “If masks are currently being recommended in the community for these nonhealthcare groups, then those at veterinary practices should use them.”

And, as Stull is careful to point out, the CDC doesn’t say you can take your mask off: “This is an issue that needs to be carefully considered by veterinary practices, as vaccine coverage by personnel and owners as well as [the effectiveness of local vaccination efforts] are key aspects to consider.”

Stull said that many US veterinary teaching hospitals are planning to continue the required use of masks by all personnel—and likely, pet owners—for the same reasons, at least in part.

So, with so many businesses fully reopening, when will it be the right time to fully reopen and allow clients back inside?

Stull concedes the question is a tough one: “It’s important to consider what’s happening in your local area [regarding] COVID-19 transmission in the community and the risk tolerance of your personnel.” Careful, well-thought-out decisions are critical here, and Stull said it’s helpful to get input from everyone at the practice: “If staff are forced into something most feel uncomfortable doing, this could have a negative impact on a number of aspects of your business—including morale.”

Even when practices begin to lift COVID restrictions, infection controls still need to be top of mind, said Stull. Each day, veterinary staff face infectious disease concerns due to animals who aren’t directly linked to COVID (e.g., canine parvovirus, feline panleukopenia, and zoonotic pathogens). “In fact, many of our patients’ preventive care may have slipped during the past year, such that the risks for hospital-associated infections may be greater than ever.”

Meghan Davis, DVM, MPH PhD, associate professor in the Department of Environmental Health and Engineering at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, agrees with Stull on the subject of masks.

“Masking guidance is set by both CDC and state/local public health authorities, so the guidance each hospital might use is likely to vary from place to place,” she told NEWStat. “In areas where vaccination rates are low and/or human case counts of COVID-19 remain steady, practices may wish to continue more strict protocols.”

In areas where vaccination rates are high, case counts are low, and masks are not required by local or state officials, then the practice may consider relaxing prior restrictions, she added.

In short, Stull said, the pandemic may be easing, but veterinary practices must remain vigilant: “We need to keep up and excel at the general infection-control principles that are key to providing excellent veterinary healthcare.”

Photo credit: © pidjoe/E+ via Getty Images

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