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May 15, 2020

Veterinary staff, student face COVID-19

Challenges come in the form of changing protocols, travel
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As the U.S. enters its third month feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, veterinary professionals, too, continue to adjust how they operate in a time of physical distancing, an uncertain economy, growing unemployment, and shortages of personal protective equipment. Many veterinary professionals and veterinary students have perspectives to share. JAVMA News spoke with several people in late March and early April about their personal experiences during this time. The responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Cheyenne Clark works the front desk
Cheyenne Clark, a customer service representative, directs calls at Petsburgh Pet Care in Lafayette, Indiana. (Photos courtesy of Petsburgh Pet Care)

Veterinary student flies home

Q. Please tell me about yourself.

A. My name is Lindsay Brunet, and I’m in the 2022 graduating class at St. George’s University School of Veterinary Medicine in Grenada, West Indies. I grew up on a farm in southern Louisiana, and I knew I wanted to be an animal doctor since I was 4.

Q. Can you tell me about your experience leaving St. George’s amid the spread of COVID-19?

A. The SGU head office sent us an email (March 11) saying that, due to COVID-19, they would be transitioning to an online format until at least April 15. In the same email, they highly encouraged the student body to return to their home countries. They set up charter flights, which they paid for, to Miami, New York, or Toronto. I chose to leave Grenada and return to Louisiana to be with my family during this time.

Two of my examinations for the semester were postponed. I got put on a March 14 flight to Miami. SGU told us to arrive at the airport at least three hours early. I woke up March 14 and got to the airport to unbelievable lines outside. There was a mix-up with the flight manifests, and it got crazy and sort of became a first-come, first-served situation.

I ended up standing outside the airport in the sun for about six hours and then inside for another hour. I was within the last 20 people who got ticketed for the flight. As frustrating as the waiting was, SGU and the airport had a 48-hour window to organize the charter flights, and they were doing the best they could.

Kayla Winemiller and canine patient
Kayla Winemiller, a veterinary assistant at Petsburgh Pet Care, leads a patient inside while the owner waits outside.

Once I finally got to the ticket counter, my luggage was checked and paid for by SGU. All my pets rode in the cabin for free with me, with no limits, which was amazing.

I missed my connection by about an hour, and unfortunately, my luggage did not make it on the plane with me and was stuck in Grenada. But SGU sent it via FedEx to me.

I had planned to study all weekend, but instead I had to pack up my whole life in a day and travel home. It was crazy.

Practice manager juggles

Q. Please tell me about yourself.

A. My name is Leslie Boudreau. I am the hospital manager at the Animal Hospital of Huntington Beach in California. I am also a registered veterinary technician.

Q. Can you tell about how you and leadership have made policy changes at the practice you manage?

A. This has been an exercise in learning how to change on the fly and develop protocols and policies that change hour to hour. Initially, when things started to develop, we presented a protocol to leadership and discussed how to implement it. Before it was reviewed, we had to change it at least four or five times. The tiniest amount of change is difficult for people, and everyone has to change. Staying positive and leading that change have been difficult. It has been a circus of moving animals, some clowns, and jugglers.

Q. What kind of staff safety protocols have you implemented?

A. Establishing priorities was a big thing and keeping our staff safe. We’ve implemented a no-sniffle rule. Blink funny, and you stay home. We’ve been as cautious as possible about keeping our staff safe. We have full curbside service now, so very few people enter the building, and we have reworked schedules so that leaders can offer additional support and time to staff.

Q. Are there any resources you’re using to help yourself during this time?

A. I am part of a very close community of practice managers, and having colleagues who are in the same boat and sharing best practices is very helpful. We have Zoom meetings and text chains, which have been a great resource. The Southern California VMA has been awesome, too, with daily updates.

COVID-19 changes everything for veterinary technician

Q. Please tell me about yourself.

A. My name is Sarah Summers, and I am a registered veterinary technician in Lafayette, Indiana. I graduated and obtained an RVT license in 2014. I work at Petsburgh Pet Care, a three-doctor, small animal general private practice with our own boarding and grooming facilities, about an hour outside of Indianapolis.

Q. How has COVID-19 changed the way you work?

A. It has changed the way we work in every regard, and I can’t emphasize “every” enough. Everything takes longer now, and we are trying to find different ways to be efficient and protect ourselves and clients. Our RVTs and assistants take all phone calls regarding concerns and help determine if we can start with a remote consult. If we are to interact at all with the owner and their pet, we ask if they have any recent travel history, illness, or exposure we should be aware of. So far we’ve been lucky.

It feels like it was so long ago that we made the difficult decision to lock our lobby doors and not let clients inside the building, but it was only March 18. Our normally ever-revolving exam rooms lay unused, and there are now echoes in the lobby. As we try to use our time wisely between the sparse patient and client care, the clinic is filled with our muffled computer speakers sharing educational webinars and news stories regarding COVID-19 updates.

Q. Any other changes?

A. When owners pick up medicine, we set it on a chair outside for them to pick up. We ask cat owners to set the carriers beside the door and walk away. Dogs we leash with our own leashes, but still we have to get fairly close to the owner. Scared dogs are a game changer; the ones that can’t walk without their owners, we take those case by case.

Our bathing and grooming team has been ordered to stay at home. The kennel attendants are working with minimal staffing. All of our nonessential surgeries have been postponed. We have fabric masks that we wear whenever we are near owners. We have masks for owners to wear during euthanasias, which is the only time we are allowing an owner into the building right now.

We’re all washing our hands and using sanitizer religiously. We’re all still wondering if it’s enough.

Q. What have you been doing for your mental health?

A. Compassion fatigue and emotional exhaustion take on a new meaning when it’s overflowed from your professional life to a world crisis. We all know we need to fill up our own cup in order to have something to pour, but we’re all feeling a very real struggle in finding ways or motivation to take care of ourselves.

I step back every day after work and take a few deep breaths. I pet my animals one at a time. This is my recharge.

I think it’s important to own how we’re feeling during this COVID-19 pandemic.