Crazy. Strange. Challenging. Those words are how many employees of animal hospitals describe working on the frontlines during the pandemic. When you're an essential business, even though there's a virus outbreak, you still have to come to work.
Waggle spoke to some of its veterinary partners to see how they've been handling COVID-19 and what they are expecting for the start of the new normal.
In East Greenwich, Rhode Island, veterinarian Gary Block, owner of Ocean State Veterinary Specialists, tells Waggle it's been busier than ever.
"We are an emergency hospital, and many general practitioners cut hours or appointments, so we are seeing patients who would usually see their regular veterinarian," Dr. Block says.
One of the most significant changes, to help curb the transmission of the virus, only the staff and pets are allowed into the hospital, but most of the time, owners are not.
"What most vets are doing now is curbside check-in," Dr. Block says. "We get a history over the phone; a tech goes out and gets the pet. We examine the pet, and we call the owner with information."
Dr. Block says he misses doing pet exams while owners sit in the room, and they chat about the dog or cat.
One dilemma for many vet clinics is how to handle euthanasia. Hospitals are trying to balance keeping their clients and their staff safe without asking an owner to do a curbside drop off for their beloved pet to be put down.
Ocean State Veterinary Specialists is allowing owners inside in these cases.
"We don't want people to not be there for their pet's last moments," Dr. Block says. "We made an exception to allow clients in the exam room where we wear full PPE and face shields. A lot of vets aren't allowing their clients to do witnessed euthanasia, we're glad to help these patients, but it makes it tough on us."
In Weymouth, Massachusetts, VCA South Shore veterinarian Amanda Duffy tells Waggle the coronavirus means constant adjustments.
"We have been basically changing things on a weekly basis based on the need we can see from our clients, our patients, and what the state and local government restrictions are," Dr. Duffy says.
VCA South Shore also has owners drop off their pets, wait outside while they're examined, and pay by phone. The hospital is also offering telemedicine appointments.
Dr. Duffy says they've been coming up with creative ways to socially distance and keep everyone safe. "It's been stressful," she says. "But I'm really amazed at the amount of positive feedback we've gotten from our clients."
In Connecticut, Pieper Veterinary kept all its locations open, including its ER in Middletown and urgent care clinic in Madison. Their animal ambulance still runs from the clinic to the emergency room.
Jesse Ferguson from Pieper Veterinary says as soon as the hospital got wind of the virus, their leadership team spent countless hours meeting to develop protocols to keep their staff and clients safe.
"I'm so proud how we managed this crisis," she says. "They took this very seriously and said, 'How do we keep things going?'"
The plan Pieper Veterinary came up with, Jesse says, became a model for other animal hospitals in the state. Besides PPE and having the right disinfectants, they created employee teams.
"Each employee had a zone to stay in, employees didn't cross zones," she says. "You had a shift, and those were the only people you worked with, so we knew if a team member got sick, then only that team would have to be quarantined."
The phone lines are quite busy at Pieper these days. Animal owners there too call to drop off their pets for appointments and wait outside. Then the vets call owners back to discuss the pet's condition, and then owners call in payments. It's been challenging.
"They've been continually adapting their phone trees and call center protocols to adapt to the influx and ensure phone wait times are as short as possible," Jesse says.
What will the new normal mean for animal hospitals?
Restrictions are loosening up across the country, what will that mean at the vet's office?
Though it's not business as usual yet, some clinics are now seeing pets for routine exams and non-urgent services.
"We've been increasing wellness visits over the last couple of weeks," Dr. Duffy says. "I'm glad to see that happening, we're taking it very slowly and cautiously. I know there's a backlog of cases and people who want to get in. We're trying our best to balance keeping everyone safe, following the restrictions, and getting the pets taken care of."
Meantime Dr. Block is closely watching coronavirus caseloads in his area and plans to keep following social distancing restrictions.
"We aren't going to take risks with our staff or the public," he says. "And we aren't going to drop our guard when it comes to social distancing and PPE."
Pieper Veterinary is also watching the caseloads cautiously.
"They're reopening hairdressers in Connecticut and it looks like things are going back to normal, but then there are people talking about another spike happening in the fall. We are not going back to normal. We are looking at what safe for employees and clients right now we don't know what that will look like in two weeks or in six months," Jesse says.
Concerns about pet owners in financial need
Dr. Block says he's bracing for what the new normal will hold for the hospital's clients financially.
"The next shoe to drop, given the economic impact of COVID on the public, is what is going to be the trickle-down? Most people are anticipating a recession and will have less disposable income and less money to spend on their pets," he says. "We made a decision that we won't raise fees this year to help clients afford care."
He is predicting money problems for pet owners will strike later this year. "I think the real economic impact will happen three to six months from now when the stimulus check and unemployment run out, they will be strapped for cash," Dr. Block says.
Dr. Duffy says she's already witnessed pet owners struggling with medical bills.
"We've started to see some financial hardship due to COVID-19, and that's a difficult situation to maneuver," she says. "We are trying to be sensitive to that at this time, and we want to offer people different treatment options."
Pieper Memorial is also starting to see an increase of pet owners concerned about their bottom lines.
"People are out of work or worried about their financial situations," Jesse says. "Unfortunately, emergency pet care can be expensive. We work very hard to keep costs manageable and we use a combination of Care Credit, Waggle, and our own Pieper Foundation to help when we can."
A historic, challenging time
The animal hospitals Waggle spoke to all agree on one thing: This has been one of the craziest times they can ever recall.
"Oh yeah, we've had some interesting things happen," Dr. Block says, "But living through a pandemic and trying to protect the staff, function as a business, and stay ahead of the curve, we've really had to step up our game. From the cleaning crew and the specialists to understand why we're doing it because one person breaking that protocol can put everyone at risk."
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