The COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on veterinarians, who play a critical role in protecting animal and public health, protecting our nation’s food supply, monitoring for zoonotic pathogens, and supporting biomedical research and medical countermeasures, such as development of COVID-19 diagnostics, treatments, and vaccines.
From the outset of the pandemic, the veterinary community faced serious questions and challenges. Could the deadly, highly contagious novel coronavirus be transmitted to humans from animals, or vice versa? How would the pandemic impact the food supply? How could we continue to serve millions of pet owners—including those adopting pets for the first time to cope with pandemic-induced isolation—and help them care for their animals? How could the next generation of veterinarians and veterinary technicians continue to receive excellent education and training while ensuring the health and safety of all?
Veterinary professionals across the nation rose to meet those challenges, innovating to serve patients and clients with creativity and dedication. Thank you to all veterinary responders for the essential roles you continue to play during this pandemic.
Delivering veterinary services
Fortunately, veterinary practices have consistently been designated an essential healthcare business throughout the pandemic. That meant that veterinary professionals needed to quickly adapt and respond to changing conditions and recommendations to keep clients, veterinary students, and animal health care teams safe—all while still providing essential and needed veterinary services for all types of animals.
At the start, veterinarians faced shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), new social distancing requirements, and, in some states, requirements to postpone non-urgent/elective procedures to conserve PPE and reduce person-to-person contacts between healthcare staff members and the public. Veterinary practices and schools of veterinary medicine addressed those initial challenges with creative solutions, and even now continue to invoke strategies that reduce risk of exposure to the virus and keep their clients, students, and teams safe; appropriately utilize PPE; and ensure provision of quality care for their animal patients.
For example, more than 30 percent of U.S. veterinary practices used telehealth to deliver services to clients and care for patients during the pandemic, compared with about 10 percent prior to it. Despite the pandemic, veterinary visits in 2020 were about equal to what we saw in 2019.
Throughout the pandemic, the AVMA provided resources to help veterinary practitioners maintain this trajectory successfully, including information on practicing during the pandemic, keeping veterinary teams healthy, caring for patients, determining when cases are urgent or non-urgent, and using telemedicine to care for patients during COVID-19.
Supporting food supply chains
The rapidly evolving crisis of COVID-19 presented a challenge to the operation of veterinary practices, many of which safeguard the nation’s food supply. Veterinarians play a much more diverse role in our world than many know. They’ve long been a critical line of defense helping keep our food supplies safe, ensuring the safety of herds both large and small as well as the safety of animal-sourced foods.
COVID-19 has caused disruptions in the food supply chain that have impacted, and will continue to impact, livestock and poultry veterinarians as well as those veterinarians working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For instance, there have been shortages of personnel to help care for animals and to process and deliver safe and healthy food to retailers. Shifts in food consumption patterns have had their effects, as well.
These disruptions cause ripples throughout food production systems, impacting animal care, animal movement, and processing. Thank you to all food animal and federal veterinarians who have consulted with farms and other facilities as changes were implemented to address the impact of these disruptions on the health and welfare of animals.
Learn more about the impacts of COVID-19 on food production medicine, as well as considerations for food animal veterinarians during the pandemic.
Responding with a One Health mindset
One Health refers to the concept that humans, animals, and the ecosystems we live in are inextricably linked, as well as the collaborative effort of multiple disciplines working locally, nationally, and globally to attain optimal health for people, animals, and the environment. Veterinarians, whose education and training centers them in understanding how the interaction of animals, people, and the environment can affect public health, are well-positioned to be key players in developing effective responses—for this and future pandemics.
More than 75 percent of emerging diseases (such as COVID-19) originate in animals before infecting humans, meaning veterinarians might often be the first line of defense against new viruses. And, veterinarians have not just been treating animal patients during this pandemic; they’ve been working collaboratively with other medical professionals to learn more about the novel coronavirus and finding ways to protect human health:
- Supplies: In the early days of the pandemic, veterinarians quickly helped supply personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators, and other provisions to address human health needs.
- Testing: Veterinarians developed COVID-19 testing kits for people and helped process human samples.
- Research: Veterinarians have been involved in researching the structure and pathogenic mechanisms of the virus, ways to reduce the virus’ spread, possible animal reservoirs for the virus, and the role animals may play in passing the virus on to people.
- Virus surveillance: Veterinarians worked within the federal government and collaborated with state, national, and international teams to monitor the virus and develop and refine the ongoing response.
- Vaccine development: Veterinarians have been working on the front lines in the hunt for new COVID-19 vaccines and therapeutics.
- Vaccine administration: Responding to a presidential call for assistance from all medical professionals to help in human vaccination programs around the country, veterinarians have enlisted as vaccination providers in some areas to help get shots into people’s arms and put an end to the pandemic.