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Columns, COVID-19, Leadership

What COVID-19 has taught us

We learned to navigate through the unthinkable and prepare for the unknown.

What COVID-19 has taught us
Share your hospital’s emergency action plan during employee safety training and then address it annually.

As I write this article, the world is smack dab in the middle of a bona fide pandemic. We are all scrambling to adjust and continue to provide veterinary services to clients while at the same time trying to take care of our businesses, our employees and ourselves. It has been a tremendously stressful time for everyone, and we don’t know what the future holds.

I hope that we all make it through and return to life as we knew it, albeit adapting to a new normal. What can we take from the situation and which changes will we make in our practices so that we can deal with something similar in the future?

Many veterinary practices are prepared for natural disasters such as floods, fires, tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes. But how many of us planned for something like the novel coronavirus? My guess is very few if any.

Practices were affected in ways such as these:

  • “Safer at home” mandates. The general public was asked to stay put, resulting in an immediate drop in clients bringing their pets to veterinary hospitals.
  • Social distancing. A 6-foot perimeter was recommended, which meant creatively scheduling necessary visits and limiting exposure between employees and clients.
  • Closed schools and child care facilities. This change made it difficult, if not impossible, for some parents to continue to work. The result was a decrease in staff availability and the need for creative scheduling.
  • Fear for personal safety. Some employees opted to stay home to avoid exposure or, if exposed, to self-isolate. The result was widespread staff shortages.
  • Practices closed or severely reduced hours. This affected employers and employees, harming everyone financially.
  • Panic and fear. Items perceived as necessary, such as masks, gloves and face shields, were hoarded, so medical facilities had a difficult time finding enough personal protective equipment (PPE). (Was there a chance the world would run out of toilet paper?)

We learned a lot from the COVID-19 crisis as a nation, as a business and as individuals. Now is a good time to look at how your practice was affected, how you responded, and what procedures and processes you will put in place to prepare for the next disaster in whatever form it comes.

Here are four ideas.

1. Review and Update Your Emergency Action Plan

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration mandates that you have an injury and illness prevention plan. A key component is an emergency action plan, which must be covered in the initial safety training of all employees and then addressed annually. The purpose is to protect employees, clients and patients during a major disaster, a crime in progress or a threat to personal safety.

Your emergency action plan should describe the initial responsibilities and actions to be taken to protect everyone until the appropriate practice leaders or first responders arrive.

Look at your plan now and update it as necessary. Each emergency type requires a different response based on the risks.

The most common scenarios for your location should be outlined in the plan and address the following:

  • The process for reporting emergencies — how, who and when?
  • Hospital evacuation and re-entry details.
  • Securing the hospital and patients to not endanger human life.
  • Contact information and procedures for reaching individuals authorized to make critical decisions. They might be the practice owner, manager or safety coordinator.
  • Infectious disease control and guidelines.
  • Which business activities get priority after the emergency?

2. Review and Update Your Infection-Control Plan

Who would have thought this one would be so important? We try to control the spread of the common cold and flu, but how many of you were prepared for and had protocols for the spread of a potentially deadly virus like COVID-19? Now is the time to address infection-control training and education. Discuss and establish a plan that has written protocols, procedures and expectations.

These include:

  • Employees must stay home when sick or exposed.
  • Proper cleaning and disinfection procedures for equipment and surfaces.
  • Personal hygiene protocols.
  • Laundry-handling protocols to minimize exposure.
  • Identifying and providing appropriate personal protective equipment.

In the event of another pandemic, consider what we learned from COVID-19. What did you do that worked and what could you have done differently?

Consult with your team and consider:

Physical distancing. How can you best accomplish it with clients?

Curbside service. Did you make the shift like other clinics, and what would you do differently to protect staff and clients? (Check out Patterson Veterinary University’s free course, “Telehealth Veterinary Curbside Care,” at bit.ly/2JJZ93U.)

Telemedicine. Was it an option for you? If not, why?

Prescription and diet refills. If you didn’t have an online pharmacy that ships directly to the client, do you now? If not, why?

3. Evaluate Your PPE Protocols

What personal protective equipment should you have on-site and in what quantity? Employers must provide appropriate PPE for all potential risk-of-injury scenarios as determined in your annual hazard inspection and analysis. All employees need to know the injury and illness risks and how to mitigate them.

Communicate the following:

  • When PPE is necessary.
  • What kind of PPE is necessary.
  • PPE limitations.
  • How to properly wear, adjust and remove PPE.
  • How to maintain and properly care for PPE.
  • Once determined to be necessary, PPE is not optional.

I suspect that many of us have considered shifting from disposable gowns and masks, which are difficult to obtain in an emergency, to reusable ones. They might be more costly initially but will pay off when disposable items are hard to come by.

4. Update Emergency Contact Information

Now is a good time to review and update your employee files. Make sure contact information is current and complete. Review and update the information regularly as it can change. Emergency contact information should include:

  • Employee phone number.
  • Employee home address.
  • Employee email address.
  • Phone numbers, email addresses and home addresses of at least two people known to the employee outside of work and their relationship to the employee.

Responding to and navigating emergencies is stressful for everyone, taking an emotional toll on employees, not to mention a potential financial hit. Pay attention to the health and well-being of the team and provide resources to assist them emotionally and financially.

We’ll never know when and in what form the next emergency might present. It isn’t enough to hope for the best unless you are prepared for the worst. Emergency preparedness is essential. The better prepared you and your team are, the better you will be able to handle the situation and survive it as a business and as individuals.

Getting Technical columnist Sandy Walsh is a practice management consultant, speaker, writer and instructor for Patterson Veterinary University.