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April 15, 2021

Veterinarians help with COVID-19 vaccine delivery

Government and private veterinarians have already been assisting in several states across the country
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A mother, grandmother, and toddler were among the multitudes who came to COVID-19 vaccination sites in Nevada in February. The mother had just taken the family dog for vaccines, and she told the toddler that mama would be getting a vaccine. The toddler said, “Just like Duke!”

The person administering the vaccine, Dr. Peggy Shaver, a veterinary medical officer with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found the situation to be particularly appropriate, even though she didn’t have time to mention that she happens to be a veterinarian.

USDA veterinary vaccination team in Nevada
A U.S. Department of Agriculture team based out of Carson City, Nevada, to help with COVID-19 vaccination poses for a photo at a vaccination site at the Comstock History Center in Virginia City, Nevada. In the front row, from left to right, are Dr. Kristin Napoli, supervisory animal care specialist; Lanora Elliston-Gittings, program analyst; Dr. Courtney Jernigan, veterinary medical officer; Dr. Debra Sime, veterinary medical officer; and Gloria Magana, safety officer. In the back row, from left to right, are Dr. Scott Kramer, veterinary medical officer; Randall Coleman, animal care inspector; Dr. Albert Van Geelen, supervisory veterinary medical officer; Dr. Jason Baldwin, veterinary medical officer; and Dr. Kelley Black, veterinary medical officer. (Courtesy of USDA)

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service had, as of March 3, deployed 200 employees, including veterinary medical officers and animal health technicians, to help with the COVID-19 vaccine delivery effort. Other USDA agencies also had dispatched 28 veterinarians to assist.

Several states have also begun to include private veterinarians in their vaccination delivery plans. Private veterinarians in these states have volunteered in various roles, from helping with screening to administering vaccines.

On March 11, President Biden announced that his administration would, at the federal level, expand the pool of qualified professionals able to administer shots to include veterinarians and veterinary students, among others (see sidebar).

USDA veterinarians

Dr. Napoli
Dr. Kristin Napoli, supervisory animal care specialist with the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, prepares a vaccine while deployed to Nevada to help with COVID-19 vaccination. (Courtesy of USDA)

As of March 3, APHIS had deployed 144 employees to Nevada and Oklahoma to administer COVID-19 vaccinations at points of rapid distribution. The USDA Agricultural Research Service, Agricultural Marketing Service, and Food Safety and Inspection Service had dispatched veterinarians to assist with vaccination efforts in Nevada, Maryland, and Oklahoma.

Among the APHIS veterinarians deployed to Nevada for 30 days in February were Dr. Shaver as well as Dr. Kristin Napoli, a supervisory animal care specialist. Dr. Shaver served primarily as a vaccinator based in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas, while Dr. Napoli led a team of USDA volunteers based out of Carson City, the state capital, in a rural and mountainous area home to wild horses.

On arrival, both veterinarians completed training on the COVID-19 vaccines and how to give a vaccine to humans. Dr. Shaver said, “This is just one more set of anatomy to add on to what we already consider in our day-to-day work, so we’re pretty well poised to be able to do the vaccinating safely.”

In Clark County, the two primary vaccination sites have been inside the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Cashman Center. There also have been pop-up sites inside high schools and community centers. In the area around Carson City, the sites have included fairgrounds and even a history museum.

Dr. Shaver
Dr. Peggy Shaver, a veterinary medical officer with APHIS, draws up vaccines in the pharmacy area of an operation administering COVID-19 vaccines in Nevada. (Courtesy of USDA)

One of Dr. Napoli’s favorite recollections is vaccinating a man in his 90s whose son showed off photos of the father working as a detective on the Charles Manson case. Dr. Napoli said many people’s stories were full of tears, people desperate to see their grandkids again. She would cry along with them.

Dr. Shaver said one man who was getting vaccinated started to cry because he had lost so many friends and family members. She said, “Everybody is so grateful, but there are some heavy emotions going on here, too, that we have to navigate.”

For Dr. Shaver, most of the time her being a veterinarian didn’t come up in conversation, but Dr. Napoli has some scrubs that identify her as “Dr. Napoli.” Whenever people would comment on her being a doctor, she would look left and right, then say, “I’m a doctor of veterinary medicine.” They would reply that they wouldn’t bite or would start making animal noises, or they’d say, “Oh, flesh is flesh.”

Dr. Shaver said the vaccination delivery effort is a victory for the one-health approach of collaboration among health professionals. The USDA has deployed health professionals from various disciplines to help. One day, Dr. Shaver was sitting by a local volunteer who is a dentist. Dr. Napoli said another local volunteer is a coroner.

Dr. Napoli’s thesis for her master’s in public health was about the one-health concept. She said, “Having to have that itch so satisfied by doing this in the most literal way possible to help our human colleagues has been the absolute thrill ride.”

An Ohio veterinarian

Dr. Schneider
Dr. Chrissie Schneider, who works for Merck Animal Health, volunteered through the Ohio Medical Reserve Corps to help with COVID-19 vaccine delivery. She took this selfie after receiving her own first of two doses on Feb. 5, which was also her first day of volunteering. (Courtesy of Dr. Schneider)

As of February, the AVMA was aware that at least four states—Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, and Ohio—had begun to include private veterinarians in their vaccination delivery plans. The AVMA advises considering the possibility of legal risks before volunteering (see sidebar).

Dr. Chrissie Schneider, a senior equine professional services veterinarian with Merck Animal Health, signed up as a volunteer through the Ohio Medical Reserve Corps to help with COVID-19 vaccine delivery.

“I definitely feel motivated to help in any way I can, whether that is giving the vaccine or directing traffic or helping people sign up, whatever that is, to try to put an end to this pandemic as quickly as we can,” she said.

Dr. Schneider signed up for a dual position of screener or vaccinator for her county, Franklin County, which includes Columbus, the state capital. She also signed up as a potential volunteer for two other nearby counties.

On Feb. 5, her first day of volunteering, Dr. Schneider was a screener at a vaccination site inside the Franklin County Board of Elections building. When people make an appointment to get a vaccine, they fill out screening questions, and then the on-site screeners go over the questions with each person. That day, the morning was for people ages 75 and older receiving the first of two doses, and the afternoon was for essential workers such as first responders and health care workers getting their second shot.

(L-R) Drs. Gaffke, Evans, Schneider, and Schumacher
Four veterinarians volunteered at the COVID-19 vaccine clinic put on March 5 in Franklin County, Ohio, by Franklin County Public Health. Two went over screening questions, and two administered vaccines. From left to right are Drs. Ryan Gaffke, who works for Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, holding up a COVID-19 vaccination card; Samantha Evans, a clinical pathologist at The Ohio State University’s Veterinary Medical Center; Chrissie Schneider, senior equine professional services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health; and Stephen Schumacher, chief administrator of US Equestrian’s Equine Drugs and Medications Program. (Courtesy of Dr. Schneider)

A few people were memorable because they were so excited, particularly among those 75 and older. One screening question was, “Have you been exposed to anyone with COVID symptoms in the last 14 days?” A lot of the older people would look at Dr. Schneider and say, “I haven’t seen anyone for months.” They hadn’t been out of their house for a while, so it was a celebration for many of them to finally be getting their first dose and on their way to being protected.

Dr. Schneider felt excited about getting vaccinated, too. She hasn’t seen her parents in person for more than a year but is looking forward to seeing them when they are all vaccinated.

For the past year, work has been entirely virtual for Dr. Schneider. She feels lucky as a Merck employee to get 40 paid hours a year to volunteer. She plans to use up those five days volunteering with the vaccination effort, then try to volunteer on weekends or evenings if an expanding vaccine supply leads to an expansion of hours at vaccination sites.

“This is something that hopefully will be a once-in-a-lifetime thing, but we’ll look back in 20, 30, 50 years and be like, ‘Hey, I was involved in that,’” she said.

Authorizing veterinarians, veterinary students to give shots

President Biden, in a March 11 address, announced that his administration would increase the number of people providing COVID-19 vaccinations and supporting vaccination efforts.

The secretary of health and human services, amending a declaration under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, expanded the pool of qualified professionals able to administer shots to include veterinarians and veterinary students, along with dentists, advanced and intermediate emergency medical technicians, midwives, optometrists, paramedics, physician assistants, podiatrists, and respiratory therapists, as well as other health care students in the previously listed professions. This also applies to veterinarians whose license or certification has become inactive, expired, or lapsed within the last five years.

The Department of Health and Human Services launched a new website to help individuals determine whether they are eligible to sign up to volunteer to administer shots. Specific conditions and requirements must be met in order for the authorization to administer the vaccines and the liability protections to apply. These include volunteers having basic certification in CPR, completing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 vaccination modules, and undergoing an observation period.

For veterinarians who might want to volunteer to help with COVID-19 vaccine delivery, the AVMA advises keeping in mind the following legal considerations:

  • The amended declaration under the PREP Act provides liability immunity to veterinarians and veterinary students “against any claim of loss caused by, arising out of, relating to, or resulting from the manufacture, distribution, administration, or use of medical countermeasures,” such as COVID-19 vaccines, except for claims involving willful misconduct. These liability protections apply from March 11, 2021, through Oct. 1, 2024.
  • The immunity provided by the PREP Act is broad, but must also be put into context, as it creates an affirmative defense in litigation that can be raised by a defendant. That said, it doesn’t stop someone from bringing a lawsuit. Veterinary malpractice insurance will not likely cover a veterinarian intentionally injecting a person with a COVID-19 vaccine, so defense costs could potentially be out of pocket for the veterinarian.
  • There may also be state laws that provide immunity and may or may not provide a defense. They may have their own unique requirements to qualify.

The AVMA has developed additional resources to help those who would like to volunteer, such as guidance on CPR certification and other requirements.

The AVMA offers a summary of the COVID-19 vaccination situation for the veterinary profession, resources for those who would like to volunteer as vaccinators, a back-office poster to encourage vaccination, and answers to frequently asked questions.