Local veterinarians are among those attempting to cope with COVID-19 realities and uncertainties. They have made changes in how they are serving clients due to regulations and the unclear future.
”We stocked up on masks, isolation gowns and booties in January, as the reports came out of China and we realized shortages were likely,” said Alex Cole, DVM, owner of Urbana Veterinary Clinic. “We started conserving equipment in February. The government was less prepared, so they made us provide an inventory of equipment they might need to confiscate.”
Some of the clinic’s stockpile is now gone, donated to Vancrest of Urbana, a nursing home/rehab center.
“They are running out of masks, unable to get more, and the county has told them they are on their own,” Cole said. “We are donating our supply, trying to compensate for the failure of our government to adequately plan.”
He said his clinic also offered a surgical respirator, for possible donation, on an equipment list circulated by veterinary clinics.
It is definitely not business as usual at the busy clinic, with orders to postpone non-essential surgeries since masks, gloves and other medical items may be needed by other medical providers.
“It isn’t clear why civil authority is also running out of surgical gloves during a pneumonia outbreak,” Cole said. “We are continuing to treat those things that cause pain or suffering and also doing procedures where we can avoid the use of disposable protective equipment our human colleagues might need.”
Cole said his staff found “old-fashioned, reusable cloth surgery masks” that had been placed in storage before he purchased the clinic in 2010. They’re the backup supply. “I have offered a couple colleagues one if needed as well,” he said.
“We continue to treat tumors or cancers since they might spread or become life-threatening by the time the dust settles and the logjam being created is finally cleared. We have no idea how many weeks this will last. Italy has been in quarantine two weeks and their curve finally seems to be flattening,” Cole said last week.
He said some medications are in short supply because many of their ingredients are made overseas.
“Overall, we have most essential drugs we might need,” he added.
‘No substitute for a real exam’
“It’s hard to separate what is essential and what isn’t,” Cole said when asked how the clinic’s services have changed. He said the clinic is considering telemedicine, but that it has limitations.
“There is just no substitute for a real exam,” he said. “How can I tell if the ear infection is yeast or bacteria without looking under the microscope? How can I identify mites or a polyp without an otoscope? The consequences are much worse when life-threatening conditions are possible. It’s always a challenge to separate abdominal pain from back pain. It could be impossible by video.”
He noted that as some people isolate themselves to avoid sickness, pet maladies continue, including some that may harm humans.
“The routine puppy and kitten plagues like parvovirus and panleukopenia won’t go away with the stay-at-home order,” Cole said. “Many diseases have wildlife vectors, including distemper. Others can infect family members, putting further strain on our colleagues from the human side.
“We are constantly balancing the conflicting needs of the unprepared government agencies and hospitals, protecting our clients, protecting their pets, protecting ourselves and trying to make sure the clinic is still here this fall,” he said.
Urbana Veterinary Clinic has two full-time and two part-time vets, three registered technicians, three other technicians and five other staffers. Cole said everyone is following Gov. Mike DeWine’s orders to take their temperatures each morning.
There have been layoffs and shortened hours.
“Our ability to care for patients is primarily limited by our manpower, which we have to drop as the economy crashes,” he said.
“We’re frantically trying to contain costs as people stop coming in,” Cole added. “My biggest cost is my most important resource, my very skilled, compassionate and hardworking people. They are the ones that make the good work we do possible. We care about each other and support each other, so I feel like I’m abandoning them in their time of need … I’m cutting hours and telling people not to come in even as their spouses are given pink slips.
“The team has been great. People have voluntarily taken layoffs, not because they wanted to, but because they knew their friends needed to keep working even more than they did. I am not paying myself. I don’t have any kids and am able to live off savings for a little while.”
Cole said some unemployed people may be forced to choose whether to buy food, medications for themselves or pet supplies and vet visits for their pets.
Regular checkups important
He said the result of not visiting vets for regular checkups and for problems that arise will be dire for many pets.
“Because of the long backlog, it will be many months before we are able to get everybody back on some sort of preventative and wellness schedule,” he said of the clinic’s clients. “Many conditions will go undetected and escalate. Dogs and cats may not be at risk to COVID-19, but they will surely die from its consequences.”
Cole said portions of the CARES Act may keep his staff employed, adding that emergency loans will be essential since Congress also increased the cost of remaining open with new mandates.
“I wish I could do these things for my team and myself without help,” he said. “Any business has to be fearful of multiple critical team members being placed on sick leave while running at reduced capacity on a skeleton crew. If both full-time veterinarians get sick at once, I have contingency plans in place to allow emergency services to continue two or three days a week.”
He said Wright-Patt Credit Union, authorized by the Small Business Administration to handle emergency loans, told him it may be three or four weeks before the government has loan rules in place. “The practice’s mortgage payments have been deferred for the next two months,” he said. “Nobody knows how long the public health measures will last.
“We have had enough demand so far I am confident the clinic can continue to serve Urbana for two more weeks even if things get dramatically worse,” Cole said. “Four weeks and longer will depend on the health of my team, myself and the community.
“It’s exhausting these days,” he said. “We’re just in constant reaction mode trying to keep adjusting to our changing reality. When the restrictions are lifted, we will face a daunting challenge.”
Kathy Fox can be reached at 937-652-1331, ext. 1773.