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May 15, 2020

Public Health Service veterinarians work to protect people during pandemic

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As people returned to the U.S. from areas with COVID-19 outbreaks, federal veterinarians helped protect them and the communities where they arrived.

They also worked to identify the people at highest risk and help people protect themselves.

Capt. Marvin L. Thomas, chief veterinarian for the U.S. Public Health Service since March 1, works as surgery service chief in the National Institutes of Health Office of Research Services Division of Veterinary Resources, through which he provides resources to institutions with laboratory animals. He said USPHS veterinarians flew to outbreak sites and U.S. entry points. There, they screened airline passengers and talked with them about their health.

Other USPHS veterinarians trained people in the U.S. on procedures for putting on and taking off personal protective equipment and worked to contain the risk from people returning to the U.S. from Wuhan, China, the city where the first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported on Dec. 31, 2019. Many of the USPHS veterinarians are members of rapid response teams that work in medical teams that help prevent further outbreaks.

The veterinarians responding to this pandemic include seasoned disease responders, some of whom performed fieldwork during the Ebola outbreaks.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, in a message sent to NIH employees March 27, said more than 1,200 USPHS Commissioned Corps members and 2,400 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff members had been deployed since Jan. 17. Those figures would include veterinarians, physicians, and other health care professionals.

Capt. Casey Barton Behravesh, director of the One Health Office for the CDC National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases, led the CDC’s one-health team during the immediate response to the pandemic, connecting health care providers across medical disciplines and giving the public information on the safety of pets and other animals, including animals shipped from outbreak areas. Some of the public information included reminding people to stock up on pet supplies and stressing the importance of individual efforts such as hand washing and routine disinfection.

Dr. Barton Behravesh also was one of the veterinarians on public health teams who helped track high-risk people and keep them in quarantine, as well as looked for people who developed illnesses consistent with COVID-19 and needed isolation. After a brief stint working among epidemiologists studying the virus, she returned to the one-health team.

She said veterinarians possess unique training for dealing with infectious diseases, taking on myriad roles including disease surveillance, infection control, repatriation and quarantine, and contact identification to find people at highest risk of becoming infected.

She also said veterinarians in clinical practice can help by translating science to their clients and, in doing so, add to the work by public health veterinarians in government agencies. Clinical practitioners are trusted information sources in their communities, and everyone has a role in protecting people and animals, she said.