February 15, 2021
When will veterinarians get COVID-19 vaccines?
The first Americans started receiving the COVID-19 vaccines in mid-December. By late January, however, many veterinarians still weren’t sure where they were in the line for vaccination.
The AVMA House of Delegates, during its regular winter session in early January, discussed the COVID-19 pandemic during the Veterinary Information Forum, and many delegates focused on the rollout of vaccines across the country.
The AVMA has successfully advocated for veterinarians to be among those prioritized for vaccination in federal-level guidance, but tactical decisions are made at the state, territorial, and local levels—and the situation continues to evolve.
Other delegates touched on ongoing difficulties with providing child care during the pandemic.
Snapshots of situations
Dr. Cheryl Greenacre, delegate for the Association of Avian Veterinarians, started the discussion by asking what state VMAs can do to advocate so that veterinarians will be listed as health care workers able to receive COVID-19 vaccines in Phase 1a.
Dr. José Arce, AVMA president-elect, said the AVMA has been advocating for veterinarians to be a priority group since September. The AVMA provided comments to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on the Discussion Draft of the Preliminary Framework for Equitable Allocation of COVID-19 Vaccine. The draft was intended to inform the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccination Program Interim Playbook for Jurisdiction Operations.
In Puerto Rico, where Dr. Arce lives, the territory’s veterinary association met with the territory’s health department and other health associations and, later, the National Guard. Veterinarians thought they were going to be in Phase 1b, as front-line essential workers, and they were surprised to be scheduled for late 1a. Dr. Arce suggested that state VMAs should contact the state health department and join with other health professions.
Dr. Carol Ryan, Missouri delegate, said veterinarians are scheduled for Phase 1b in Missouri. As of early January, no veterinarians or veterinary staff members had been able to be immunized. She was curious whether, in other states, staff members were included with veterinarians as a priority group.
In Puerto Rico, Dr. Arce replied, everyone on the veterinary team qualifies for the same phase. Veterinarians need to provide their license to practice and a form proving that a staff member works at a veterinary hospital.
Dr. Diana Thomé, Washington state delegate, said the Washington State VMA sent out a notification in early January that the state had added a catchall in Phase 1a to cover all health care workers. The WSVMA interpreted that to mean veterinarians and their teams. After the House of Delegates session, the WSVMA issued an update saying health officials subsequently told the association that veterinarians were in a later phase to be determined.
Dr. Jon Pennell, Nevada delegate, said the Nevada VMA and state veterinary board submitted a letter requesting that veterinarians be included in one of the earlier tiers for vaccination. Dr. William Grant, California delegate, said he had just heard the good news that the California Department of Public Health had designated veterinarians and veterinary staff members to be in Phase 1a.
The AVMA comments to the National Academies used the following rationale:
- Veterinarians and veterinary teams contribute directly to supporting the food and agriculture industries, providing services that are considered essential to continued critical infrastructure viability. In addition to providing critical support for the sufficiency and safety of our nation’s food supply, veterinarians also help ensure the health and well-being of the pets that share our homes. Those pets have played an important role in supporting their owners’ physical and mental well-being during the pandemic.
- Veterinary teams are at risk of exposure. Although the veterinary profession has been creative in implementing important risk management controls during the pandemic, maintaining physical distance from our clients and staff members can be difficult when handling animals or performing medical procedures. To ensure animals receive appropriate care, we may be regularly exposed to members of the public who are symptomatically or asymptomatically ill, as well as to certain animal species that we know can be infected with SARS-CoV-2.
- Veterinary professionals actively protect animal and public health through surveillance for the SARS-CoV-2 virus in animals. Our surveillance function extends well beyond SARS-CoV-2, encompassing other potentially zoonotic and nonzoonotic diseases.
- The high degree of public trust in veterinary professionals supports veterinarians actively sharing public health messaging about the importance of vaccination. Such messaging is most effectively conveyed if veterinarians and veterinary teams have themselves received the vaccine.
The AVMA has developed a downloadable poster for the back office, “Fighting COVID-19 starts with you,” to encourage all team members to get vaccinated as early as possible.
The AVMA also has developed a list of answers to frequently asked questions about vaccination against COVID-19.
One question is, “Can practice owners require team members to be vaccinated against COVID-19 when a vaccine is available to them?”
The answer states that, according to guidance from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission: “Employers may, under certain conditions, bar employees from the workplace if they refuse to get a vaccine. ... The EEOC warns, however, that this does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the employee. ... For example, the employee may be entitled to an accommodation, such as performing work remotely. ... State law may differ from federal law and may prohibit employers from requiring employees to receive a COVID-19 vaccination.”
As the vaccine rollout continues, working parents at veterinary practices and elsewhere continue to juggle doing their jobs with caring for young children as many schools and day cares remain closed.
Dr. Paul Toniolli, Utah alternate delegate, said his office manager started to work from home. He’s had children come into the clinic, which is not ideal, but the building has an upstairs area. Some staff members have to stay home to watch their kids. He has stepped up the pace himself, working extra hours, and is simply being more flexible.
Dr. Lindy O’Neal, Arkansas delegate, said that as her two-clinic practice is continuing with curbside service, some examination rooms are not being used. The practice allows staff members to bring children in to have a place for them to go. One of the clinics even has a napping room. Children are not allowed to come if they are under quarantine, but using the empty examination rooms has been a creative way to be flexible.