Considerations for food animal veterinarians during the COVID-19 pandemic

Published March 30, 2020

Food animal veterinarians play a key role in maintaining a safe, secure, and stable food supply. Access to clients and patients is a necessary part of this responsibility, so it is critical to actively incorporate preventive measures into facility visits to decrease the risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 for veterinarians, staff members, and others.

The AVMA provides the following considerations for food animal veterinarians during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Although little is known about how SARS-CoV-2 affects animals, animals that are utilized for food and that are owned or under the care of human patients confirmed to have COVID-19 are unlikely to transmit SARS-CoV-2 to humans. At this time, there is no evidence that domestic animals, including food-producing animals, can spread SARS-CoV-2. The following recommendations are based on proven techniques that have been applied in many different disease outbreaks and are consistent with the following “hierarchy of controls” (listed from most effective to least effective):
 

COVID-19 Hierarchy of Controls

 

  • Elimination
  • Substitution
  • Engineering controls
  • Administrative controls
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE)

While PPE serves an important protective function, the optimal way to prevent disease transmission is to use a combination of interventions from across the hierarchy of controls, rather than PPE alone.

Food animal veterinarians and their staff members should consider asking screening questions prior to visiting a farm, ranch, production site, or any other livestock facility. Questions should include inquiring as to whether anyone has fever, cough, shortness of breath, or contact with a person who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, and if anyone from the facility is under isolation. Clients and/or facility managers who answer “yes” to any of the screening questions may be at increased risk for COVID-19, and the following precautions should be considered:

  • Be familiar with CDC’s interim guidance for public health professionals managing people with COVID-19 in home care and isolation who have pets or other animals.
  • Entering a facility or interfacing with a COVID-19 quarantined individual should occur only if that can be done consistent with guidance from the CDC or state or local health officials. Consultation with state and local health officials is strongly encouraged so that timely and accurate information can guide appropriate responses in each location.
  • Veterinarians and their staff members should ask to interface with a caretaker who has not been identified as presenting a particular risk for exposure to COVID-19 or should evaluate animals without a caretaker present. If this is not possible, individuals who present an identified risk of exposing others to COVID-19 should wear a face mask (N95 mask, if available, or a surgical mask), and a distance of at least 6 feet should be maintained between the individual identified as presenting a risk and the veterinarian and/or veterinary staff member.
  • The minimum number of veterinary staff needed for the task should enter the facility where anyone who has been identified as presenting a particular risk for exposure for COVID-19 is present.  Veterinary staff members should limit the number of facility employees they interact with while at the facility.

Additionally, the AVMA recommends the following for food animal veterinarians and clients:

  • Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands on a frequent basis with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, per CDC recommendations. Avoid touching your face.
  • Stay home if you are sick. Veterinarians and clients should inform all employees to not come to work if they are feeling unwell. Management should routinely look for ill employees and immediately send them home. Maintain flexible leave policies and make sure all employees know they need to stay home if they are ill.
  • Avoid close contact and practice social distancing when possible. If you or your staff are able, work remotely. Maintain at least 6 feet between contacts.
  • Practice strict biosecurity at all farms, ranches, and production sites. Visitors not necessary for the operation of the business should not be allowed onto the premises.
  • Do not hoard supplies. Hoarding of supplies or bulk purchasing in anticipation of a shortage is not necessary and not recommended as it could create artificial product supply issues.
  • Conserve personal protective equipment (PPE). Some states are asking veterinarians to donate or sell any excess PPE to state health departments. Veterinarians are being asked to limit elective procedures to decrease social interaction and decrease the use of supplies, such as gowns, gloves, and masks that are also used in human medicine and are critical for patient care and responder protection during this outbreak.
  • Veterinarians and clients should develop and maintain business emergency plans. Protocols should be developed to handle staff shortages.
  • Prioritize your health and wellbeing. Consider your own, your employees’, and your clients’ mental health and wellbeing. We encourage you to utilize COVID-19-specific wellbeing resources available at www.avma.org/Coronavirus, as well as those on the AVMA’s wellbeing webpage.

Employers should make a determination as to whether they can provide a work environment for their teams that complies with their legal obligations to protect employees from known hazards, including COVID-19.

Additional resources are available from various agencies of the federal government, and the AVMA’s food animal species-specific allied organizations have developed publicly available resources as well. Visit them for more information.