Chapter 6: Tales from the COVID-19 front lines
The new normal for veterinary practices is a work in progress given the state of affairs from state to state.
This week: Optimism is the word of the day within some quarters as the Payroll Protection Program begins to pay off and some veterinary professionals express confidence that “We’re almost done.” Others aren’t so sure.
White House, Tennessee, hospital managing partner Whit Cothern, DVM
We submitted our application for the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) loan on April 3, the first possible day. We decided to apply for the loan as my projections showed that Orchard Park Animal Hospital would eventually experience some financial challenges come mid- to late June assuming things remain the same for very much longer. Vendor payment deferments are incredibly important for cash flow now, but they will have to be eventually paid. And June is when they all start coming due.
Over the next several days, I received emails confirming my application had been received and was being processed. At the same time, I was hearing that the program itself was still being finalized. Some likened it to an airplane being built while already in the air. Due to these last-minute changes, the lender emailed to say it was working around the clock and would be over the Easter holiday weekend. I even received an email on Easter Sunday morning requesting more information. Despite starting to hear that the program was running out of money, I remained confident due to our early and now fully complete application.
At 10:55 a.m. on Thursday, April 16, the lender sent a general email notifying all applicants that funds for the program had been depleted, that it was disappointed for those not yet approved, and that it would keep our application on hand if more funds became available. Quite frankly, this was a bitter pill to swallow. All of my projections could be tossed aside because I now had to plan for a worst-case scenario. As I ran and reran my projections, it was evident we would have to make further tough decisions regarding our team.
Then at 4:06 p.m. the very same day, an email titled “IMPORTANT STATUS CHANGE: Your Application is Approved” hit my inbox. It would appear the lender was still processing applications and ours made it! On one hand, I was ecstatic for this turn of good fortune; on the other, I wanted to strangle whoever sent out that first email.
Thursday was a roller coaster of emotions on the COVID-19 carousel upon which all we presently ride.
Veterinary industry consultant Debbie Boone, CVPM
Liminal space: “Relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process. The time between what was and ‘next.’ The time when all transition takes place.” I heard the phrase from my pastor as I watched church online. It struck me as a perfect description of where we are now — a time of transition from old norm to new norm.
I know many veterinary teams seem to be working through the COVID problem and are simply waiting to return to the way things were a couple of months back. As someone who has lived through a lot of seminal events, I can say it will never be the same. That is normal and expected.
Every event teaches us some new way of working and being. We grow wiser. Will we learn that practicing some remote care though telehealth is less stressful for our patients and our teams? I think so. Will we utilize two-way texting even more? Definitely yes. Will we see more drop-offs? If we can, we should. Many veterinary teams are remarking how efficient they are when caring for patients without clients in the building. They joke, “Do we really have to let them back in?” I do not believe most team members would truly be happy if that happened. The best of us enjoy the animals and the humans. I believe the practices that are creative in the days ahead will most successfully bounce back from COVID-19. States are beginning plans to open. People will begin to move. What will the new normal be when all are required to wear masks in public?
One of my concerns is the challenge of communication when we lose the ability to see expressions. Body language is nuanced, yet humans and animals are usually exceptionally good at reading facial expressions. We are born with the ability. Even babies can read their mother’s expressions. We already have some chatter about the increase of fear reactions in dogs when people are masked. Teams will need to educate clients on acclimating their pets to seeing different-appearing humans by sharing positive-reinforcement training techniques. Fear Free already has this webinar available.
Team members need to focus on being more expressive with their eyes and body. I notice myself consciously doing this when I smile at people in the grocery store behind my mask. Will we rope off our lobby with marks on the floor at six-foot distances and limit the number of clients in the building? Will clients be handed a mask to wear if they come in with face exposed? Will they be refused service? Could hand sanitizer and ultraviolet light disinfection be a new expense in our chart of accounts? In a time of continuously changing protocols, here we go again.
Creative Disruption columnist and WellHaven Pet Health chief medical officer Bob Lester, DVM
With six weeks behind us, we can finally take a minute to reflect on where we’ve been, where we are and where we may be going. I look at COVID-19’s impact on veterinary practice as taking place in three phases. Phase one took place the last couple of weeks of March and was entirely reactive. Phase two is underway now, the new business as (un)usual. Phase three is on the horizon. I’m calling Phase three “The surge.” As an admitted optimist, I know we need to plan for the worst, but I’m predicting the best. Who’s with me?
As I think back to weeks one and two, which seems like forever ago, we were purely in a reactive mode, as was our entire planet. Reactive is not a place most of us like to be. In this reactive phase one of COVID veterinary practice, we held our breath waiting to learn if our beloved profession was to be designated as essential. We all knew we were essential, but would state governors agree? Thankfully, and likely in part due to the tragedies for both pets and people that were learned during Hurricane Katrina, we were included as essential. Whew.
Next came stay-at-home orders to limit contact. We quickly developed curbside safety measures prohibiting clients from entering our practices, enhanced biosecurity measures and new standard operating procedures. Then came gubernatorial directives designed to spare personal protective equipment (PPE) for our colleagues on the human side. We adapted to reusing caps, masks, gowns and even gloves in some cases. We further came up with innovative means to manufacture our own PPE. Many of us then donated PPE and ventilators to our human health care colleagues.
Finally, doctor by doctor, practice by practice and state by state, we came to terms as to which procedures are essential and which could safely be postponed. No easy task. State veterinary boards and governors offices wisely left considerable room for doctors to exercise their professional judgment as to essential versus non-essential procedures.
Phase two is now underway. We’re back to a more proactive stance and have developed the new business as (un)usual. We’ve gotten very good at protecting the health of our hospital teams and clients while still continuing to care for pets. SOPs have been refined based upon an ever-growing knowledge base and new safety data. This during a time when pets value to society has never been greater. While not comfortable or without stress, we are open for business and are upholding our oath to protect the health of people and pets. Not to mention, we’ve spared our teams from the unemployment line. What’s the next phase? How can we remain proactive and be prepared for the next chapter? It’s time to prepare for phase three.
I predict phase three will bring a surge to our profession. As society begins to gradually reopen to whatever the next version of normal is, I am optimistic for our profession’s future. Our WellHaven Pet Health practice is planning for a surge. We know there is a tremendous pent-up demand for our services from postponed procedures as well as from pet owners who have been reluctant to leave their homes. Additionally, we’re now entering the busy season with flea, tick and heartworm season. We are further gaining the benefit of record numbers of new pet adoptions.
Are we ready? Have we refined our new workflows, have we embraced new technology like telemedicine in support of pet families, have we preserved and held safe our teams, have we communicated our value to clients, are we ready for the new-found respect among pet owners for our essential role in society as well as for the renewed and expanded bond between pets and families?
Are you ready for our profession to emerge stronger and more respected than ever before? We are. Be prepared for the next phase. Get ready for the surge.
Politics & Policy columnist, Animal Policy Group founding partner and Today’s Veterinary Business editorial adviser Mark Cushing, JD
We’ve reached a hopeful point for veterinary medicine and pet health care in this COVID-19 crisis, and it’s time for states to act. Despite veterinary medicine being designated as an essential activity by all states, too many governments are micromanaging clinical practices and limiting visits to emergency treatments. Three arguments were raised to support these tough measures, and we’ve finally answered each one.
- Fears of shortages of personal protective equipment for human health providers drove mayors and governors to restrict veterinary activities to preserve PPE in case conditions worsened. Fortunately, human health facilities do not need veterinary supplies, and even New York is shipping ventilators to other locales. This rationale for restricting veterinary medicine no longer applies.
- After a Bronx Zoo tiger tested positive for COVID-19 and several other tigers and lions showed symptoms, fears developed that cats may be capable of transmitting the coronavirus to humans. The Bronx incident was an apparent human-to-animal transmission. On April 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a guideline clarifying that there is no basis for any finding or suspicion that cats transmit COVID-19 to humans. Veterinary clinics need not fear this risk in treating cats, so the second rationale for restricting veterinary practices no longer applies.
- Veterinary practices have demonstrated an ability to comply with social-distancing policies, and I’ve experienced this firsthand. Six-foot spacing between individuals, including staff, is not a problem, Curbside pickups, clinic leashes, appointment requirements to control walk-in overflow, masks and the like are becoming common. Telemedicine is being practiced, and patient and family numbers are managed to prevent crowding. With these measures in place, and remaining so as we open up businesses, then the third rationale for restricting veterinary practices no longer applies.
These same arguments support allowing pet grooming salons to open, buttressed by effective social-distancing measures. Good grooming is vital, and pet owners sheltered in place the past three to four weeks now understand this better than they ever did.
There’s no need to debate whether the original policies limiting veterinary practices and grooming made sense. We’ll have plenty of political blame games to enjoy for the next six months. Now we need states to do right by our pets, the 65% of Americans who enjoy a pet in their household and veterinary teams.
Veterinary industry consultant Karen E. Felsted, DVM, CPA, MS, CVPM, CVA
In thinking about what has been going on in our profession over the past week, three things stand out.
- Some practices are doing really well in spite of the pandemic. Some of this is luck: being in an area that generally has a strong economy and being in an area that isn’t as currently overrun with COVID-19 cases as some others and not having a lot of doctors and staff out sick, in isolation or taking care of children. Of course, some of this is due to managing the new way of doing business well and good client communication. Fingers crossed that this continues, but the potential coming recession or depression is concerning.
- It is becoming increasing clear that we are in this for the longer haul regardless of whether our communities are officially opened up or not. Recovery is going to take a while. I’ve no doubt that in a year or two, things will look excellent again, but it’s going to be painful getting there.
- The Payroll Protection Program loan application process was a total fiasco and whether your practice got money was largely due to whether you were lucky enough to bank with an organization that got its approval process up and running quickly and well. Many banks were a total failure in this regard.
Nothing else to do now except keep on trucking. Stay safe and sane.
Veterinary industry consultant and Southern California Veterinary Medical Association executive director Peter Weinstein, DVM, MBA
We are more than one month into the California COVID clampdown. (Thanks to The Clash for making me look up the word.) So, what’s happening? Here are the results of a recent survey of veterinary hospitals in Los Angeles and Orange counties with results from two weeks prior in parentheses for comparison:
How are you operating? (More than one answer was allowed.)
- Closed: 3.6% (2.2%)
- Emergencies only: 12.6% (17.5%)
- Social distancing: 86.5% (66.8%)
- Modest changes: 34.2% (13.5%)
How are you social distancing? (More than one answer was allowed.)
- Curbside, drop off only, no clients inside: 87.4% (61.6%)
- Client goes from car to exam room and back to car: 9.9% (8.3%)
- Telehealth (for established VCPRs): 34.2% (3.9%)
- Online store for medications: 38.7% (not asked)
- Online store for food delivery : 36.0% (not asked)
What is the status of your staff?
- All healthy and working: 59.5% (48.9%)
- Less than 25% unable to work: 26.1% (27.8%)
- Business is slow, so sending staff home or cutting hours: 6.3% (7.9%)
- Other: 8.1% (15.4%)
How’s business since the start of the pandemic?
- Increased: 5.4% (10.6%)
- No change: 17.1% (21.1%)
- Down less than 25%: 35.1% (31.7%)
- Down more than 25% but less than 50%: 26.1% (18.5%)
- Down more than 50%: 9.0% (18.1%)
- Other: 7.2% (not a choice)
What’s the trend over the two weeks of April 3 to April 17? (Question not previously asked.)
- Getting significantly better: 1.8%
- Getting better: 16.4%
- No real difference: 50.0%
- Getting worse: 23.6%
- Getting significantly worse: 5.5%
- Had to shut down: 1.0%
What could you use help with? (More than one answer was allowed.)
- Regular updates: 71.8% (34.2%)
- Help with safe operation: 40.9% (14.2%)
- Update on how other veterinarians are doing: 60.0% (19.6%)
- Short-term loan information: 19.1% (8.9%)
- Sharing of ideas for best practices: 39.1% (6.2%)
- Webinars for continuing education: 47.3% (16.9%)
- Town hall meetings: 31.8% (not a choice before)
It seems that practices have developed a new status quo for the delivery of so-called essential services and that those staff members who are ready, willing and able to help are there and performing. However, in the case of the double whammy — pandemic and economic challenges — business at more than 70% of practices is down at some level, with 35% down more than 25%. Recognizing that many of these practices were coming off a great December, January and even February, this dramatic turn downward is quite debilitating financially and psychologically.
In conversations with colleagues around the country, I heard about huge disparities between city and rural, highly regulated and loosely regulated, and urban and suburban when it comes to how practices are handling things. As I have said before, when it comes to veterinary medicine and veterinary practices, the only thing that is consistent is inconsistency.
Now is a great opportunity for those that haven’t been as heavily hit to learn from those that have thrived in the face of the virus as well as those that have been challenged. What are best practices when it comes to leadership communication, team building, marketing, service operations and financial operations? The authors included in this week’s chapter and in prior weeks are great resources with wonderful suggestions.
Additionally, the question of staff safety continues to show up as practices try to determine what is a need-to-do versus a nice-to-do. The ultimate concern seems to be when, not if, somebody brings COVID-19 into the practice. All of this points to a long-term issue.
The other issue that is more long term that we will need to deal with is uncertainty. The uncertainty of people willing to go out in groups and attend educational meetings. The uncertainty of pet owners to be willing to wait in a crowded waiting room. The asymptomatic carrier. How long until a vaccination? How long until an antibody test? How long until any test?
It is imperative for everybody who writes here, for everybody who reads this and for everybody in a leadership role in the profession to help colleagues, friends and team members feel safe. Base decisions on facts. Provide security and peace of mind. Be available. Communicate. Listen. Find the answers.
Recovery will be slow and painful, though not as painful as the disease. The physical and psychological recovery will take a village. Be a part of that village. Be a leader in the village.
Cary Consulting CEO and change agent Mia Cary, DVM
Times are beyond tough for so many. Loss of life, illness, confusion, fear, hunger and financial hardships are realities of COVID-19. Those impacted the most won’t be able to consider what recovery might look like until basic physiological and safety needs (a la Maslow) are met. Once they are, we will be able to consider how new habits formed during this unprecedented time might just become a positive part of the fabric of our new lives.
Five of the many habits that will ideally continue post COVID-19 include:
- Curbside pickup and drop-off: Veterinary practices across the globe have been forced to shift to curbside service for their clients. What a wonderful customer service offering to continue post-COVID-19. Clients love the convenience. Several veterinary professionals have shared that “we actually are benefiting from the curbside service because we accomplish more in a shorter amount of time.” It’s win-win and allows practices to transition into the customized service offerings approach that, once integrated into all aspects of our practices, will increase value and access to care for current and future clients.
- Veterinary virtual care: The time to embrace and celebrate veterinary telemedicine is past due. Here’s to state regulations continuing to become more pro-telemedicine and veterinary professionals continuing to offer telemedicine as an extension of their practice.
- Virtual meetings: Organizations and associations that were historically resistant to virtual meetings have been forced into it. And guess what? To their surprise, they are having productive, cost-saving and fun virtual meetings. In-person events and meetings, leveraged to create and cultivate relationships and build trust, are still relevant and needed. Thankfully, however, it’s now clear to many more people that virtual meetings can effectively replace a portion of our in-person meetings.
- “Some Good News With John Krasinski”: If you have not seen Krasinski’s new YouTube channel that highlights good news around the world, with a focus on gratitude and what’s going right, you’ll want to check it out. Let’s hope SGN and many other novel virtual offerings, such as school board members recording themselves reading a favorite children’s book for their students, become the new norm.
- Empathy explosion: The amount of empathy and respect for those serving on the front lines as well as collaboration between local communities, governments, and individuals is heart-warming.
When we’re able to consider what’s to come, there will be upsides.
Cara Veterinary co-founder and President Peter Brown, DVM
The experience of “Stay at home” and only essential business is becoming the new normal at our practices. Everyone is wondering what the timing and the process of getting back to normal will be.
The new processes have led to some improved patient flow but decreased client interaction. Discussing a cancer diagnosis over the phone is not ideal. Incorporating Fear Free principles has been easier than expected. Some vaccine appointments are being done when determined by our doctors to be essential to protect the patient.
Most hospitals in our region have gone to decreased hours or decreased days of operation. This has led to an increase in urgent-care cases we are seeing. Overall visits are down but revenues are steady, with an increased average ticket charge due to more sick patients and less wellness care. Though there is a lot of fear about an upcoming recession, we have not seen an increase in financial-based decision-making.
Working through the CARES Act and all the different government programs has been a challenge as it seems the rules change daily. I would encourage all business owners to investigate these opportunities. Reach out to a colleague if needed to get advice. The primary focus areas for me have been extended sick leave, partial furlough and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loan. We utilized extended sick leave for one employee who was exposed to COVID but did not have any more paid time off. He was able to continue to get full pay for his quarantine time, and I will get a reduction in Social Security tax in the future. Another employee had child care issues with schools closed, so 100% furloughed was the best choice for her. Partial furlough, or the reduction of hours to 20, has been considered but we haven’t done so. The advantage for employees with a partial furlough is that they can continue with medical insurance, maintain contact at the hospital, and receive both state and federal unemployment.
A large challenge that we had last week or so was getting our PPP loan application in. The rules seemed to be changing every day, and we received different levels of response from different banks. Receiving the funds will be very helpful in weathering the pandemic.
All indications are that we are at the top of the curve. The unknown is how long the top will be and what will happen if we go back to normal too quickly. The resilience and dedication of my teams has been inspiring.
Veterinary nurse and National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America President Kenichiro Yagi, MS, RVT, VTS (ECC) (SAIM)
As adjusting to COVID-19 life continues, people are advocating that we accept the “new normal” that life will, and perhaps should not, go back to the “old normal.” Work that can be done remotely is being quickly shifted and adapted, and those fortunate to be in such a position are finding themselves being more productive as they are able to avoid the hardships of regular life, such as traffic or a rigid schedule.
Veterinary professionals are continuing to work as essential workers providing essential services. Efforts in defining what is essential are being made, and all the while we are advocating for each other to ensure safety for the team with adequate personal protective equipment and adjustments to how care is provided. The American Veterinary Medical Association has a web page recommending how to protect the veterinary team.
As we adapt through the course of the pandemic, three voices stood out to me last week:
- Veterinary workers being faced with a stressed and unkind public. “The Pierced Protagonist” pleaded to the public to stop accusing veterinary staff of being lazy, uncaring, or overreacting in infection-control measures, and threatening or abusing the team. Veterinary teams have been working with minimal staffing, risking their safety because they have donated PPE to human health care, weighing the patient’s need with the risk to the team, and continuing to show compassion to pet owners and their family members. Knowing that while a veterinary practice’s days are stressful enough, our human health care counterparts are facing yet different kinds of stress, challenges and choices they must make. “Just be nice” and “#RNsRVNsUnite” were two of her sign-offs.
- Veterinary professionals being called to action but not in the way we wanted. Dr. Dusty Spencer wrote an open letter to the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for urging veterinarians and veterinary technicians to volunteer as mortuary staff “because of their familiarity with the deceased and the bereaved.” We all understand the horrific demand for mortuary services, the need for every bit of help that can be had and that veterinary professionals legislatively are not cleared to treat people. Yet, this call made a large body of veterinary professional feel demeaned as they continued to work as essential personnel, caring for their patients and the protection of public health through veterinary care. “It is time that veterinarians and veterinary nurses get the respect they deserve,” Dr. Spencer said, listing the many ways in which veterinarians are just as qualified as medical doctors but on different species.
- Are veterinary medical boards and legislatures not adapting quickly enough? The California Veterinary Medical Board clarified that telemedicine means can be used to provide care for patients that already have an established veterinarian-client-patient relationship for an existing problem, meaning a VCPR may not be established through remote means. The communications spurred an uproar from the veterinary community as some states have made temporary adjustments to veterinary telemedicine laws to delegate the determination of the need for a physical exam to the veterinarian’s judgment. In California, there is regulatory pressure to put the public and veterinary teams at more risk, which is opposite of what we should be doing. A petition is being circulated by veterinary professionals to advocate for change.
The “new norm” is a bit of a misnomer. The situation is changing every day with new issues that arise and is really nothing but normal. In all of it, the veterinary community is adapting the best it can. We are providing as much support as possible for each other, the public and human health care.
Getting Technical columnist, practice management consultant and Patterson Veterinary University instructor Sandy Walsh, RVT, CVPM
Practices seem to be holding strong. With good curbside service protocols in place, clients seem more willing to schedule appointments. Still trying to stick to non-elective services and procedures, practices are busy again and the schedule is full. It’s not close to business as usual, but the practices that started safety precautions early and put scheduling protocols in place are keeping busy and serving their clients. Staff continue to adjust to this new and evolving normal and are doing what needs to be done.
I’m starting to see some effects of cabin fever. Employees who chose to stay home are wanting to come back to work. Unemployment payments are delayed and they need to work.
More and more Paycheck Protection Program loans are being approved and funded, so owners are breathing a little easier.
We made it through another week. I’m looking forward to restrictions being lifted responsibly and moving into what will undoubtedly be our sustained new normal.
Today’s Veterinary Nurse editor-in-chief and NAVC director of veterinary nursing Kara Burns, MS, MEd, LVT, VTS (Nutrition)
Veterinary nurses are adjusting to the new normal and, of course, are still looking out for their patients and clients. As social distancing continues and practice protocols have changed, euthanasia has become even more difficult for pet owners, especially if they are not allowed, due to social-distancing regulations, to be there with their pet. Veterinary nurses are reaching out to each other across the world to find resources for their clients to help them in their grieving. [Check out resources from Tufts University at https://bit.ly/2Y2qLtx and Day by Day at https://bit.ly/2KkbNH5.]
Last week found my colleagues discussing issues surrounding masks and the need to wear them about eight-plus hours a day. The discussions were centered on facial care and mask sizing. That’s another testament to my colleagues stepping up and following new protocols without complaint and trying to work with each other to ensure they are taking care of themselves. I am especially proud that my colleagues are getting out their sewing machines and material and making masks for each other and other essential front-line workers.
Times are stressful and uncertain, but the veterinary nurse community will not be deterred. In this new normal, we are faced with challenges we could not have imagined two months ago. And we are surviving with help from each other.
Coretta Scott King said, “The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” What an honor to be part of the veterinary nurse community!
Saint Francis Veterinary Center of South Jersey area business manager Mark Magazu, JD, MPA
Our hospital sits triangulated between two COVID-19 hot spots — New York City and Philadelphia — and we had our first staff member test positive. We expect more in the coming weeks, as our part of New Jersey is expected to reach its peak in the coming weeks.
Our team members responded remarkably well to the news, all things considered. They were calm and discerning about the news and seemed to largely place it in proper perspective: So long as protocols are being followed, we can minimize risks. Within that context, the team of more than 100 has continued its work with notable attention and diligence.
I believe the team has reacted as it did because we were transparent with them from Day One, when we explained weeks ago in rather unfiltered language what the nature of COVID-19 is and what we would do as a team if and when it penetrated our hospital walls. I believe that preparing for this eventuality and being fully transparent with the team helped to reduce the fear once that moment arrived.
My advice to all readers: Take very seriously the protocols for social distancing, curbside service, personal protective equipment, team rotations and self-reporting of symptoms, and generally encourage a team approach where everyone is in this together and looking out for each other.
Beyond Indigo Pets CEO and Today’s Veterinary Business editorial adviser Kelly Baltzell, MA
My YouTube interview with Dr. Judy Hung was enlightening. It was a case study of one, but her hospital is in Kirkland, Washington, which is one of the epicenters of COVID-19. [Watch the interview at https://bit.ly/2RV0Wrf.]
First off, Dr. Hung is a delight. What an amazing woman who is surrounded by a fantastic team.
The video highlights:
- Eastside Veterinary Associates was one of the first in Kirkland to figure out how to stay open and manage COVID.
- She has kept her entire staff employed.
- Her team has figured out systems to reduce the spread of COVID within the hospital.
- She has reconfigured curbside pickup from how it was first implemented to reduce wear and tear on the staff.
Veterinary industry consultant and Today’s Veterinary Business editorial adviser Fritz Wood
The U.S. and world economies are in free fall. Gita Gopinath, chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, recently said: “It is very likely that this year the global economy will experience its worst recession since the Great Depression, surpassing that seen during the global financial crisis a decade ago.” Have unknowns and uncertainties ever been greater?
Among the tragedies of quarantine, more than 22 million Americans have lost jobs and paychecks, yet vital needs persist. Most of those deprived of income suffer ill financial health, while deterioration of mental and physical health often soon follow. The rising economic toll of pandemic-induced shutdowns increases continuously. The longer the economy remains shut down, the harder it will be for people to get back on their feet. When the wrecking ball stops swinging at our foundations and this war on the economy is finally won, what does the future hold? Beyond the obvious — telehealth, online pharmacy and home delivery, for example —how have pet owners changed?
According to a Federal Reserve survey released last year, six in 10 households had no way to cover three months of living expenses in the event of an emergency. A majority of Americans across income categories live paycheck to paycheck. Well, the emergency is here, and for tens of millions of wage earners, the paycheck has stopped. Rent and mortgage payments, typically the No. 1 financial priority in a household, are delinquent. JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have set aside additional billions of dollars as they ready for a flood of customers to default on their loans. Given that most of these households are pet-owning households, I fear veterinary care has an affordability problem. Even before the pandemic, at least 1 in 3 pet owners didn’t see a veterinarian annually. Cost is often cited as a barrier by some pet owners who don’t get regular veterinary care. Wellness or preventive care plans, long used by corporate veterinary medicine, are one solution.
North Carolina veterinarian, speaker, consultant and Today’s Veterinary Business editorial adviser Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT
A swell of pandemic puppies is helping to keep veterinary clinics afloat during the coronavirus crisis, according to my conversations with veterinary professionals last week. Many practice owners are telling me they’re 90% normal and seeing a surge in new puppy visits and spay/neuter requests. Almost everyone I spoke with is trying to resume normal operations as quickly as possible. Some say that providing services is based on low numbers of COVID-19 cases reports in their areas, while others stated, “If I don’t see their pet, someone else will.”
In general, veterinary services have been classified as essential by state and local agencies and the practices providing such services were allowed to remain open. There is widespread consensus that the intent of these safeguards was to provide uninterrupted emergency veterinary medical services while reducing the risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2 to vulnerable populations. In application, many veterinary clinics initially reduced their service offerings due to decreased demand or staff shortages; however, as the pandemic wore on, many have resumed providing routine or non-emergency services. In fact, one owner remarked, “This April is beating last year [in revenue] so far, maybe because of this pandemic.”
Most of the veterinary professionals I encountered believe the current stay-at-home orders will begin to ease by the end of May. The responses tended to break based on geography. West Coast, New York and Illinois state veterinary professionals indicated restrictions would be lifted in the fall, Southeastern and Northeastern states by the end May, and Midwestern veterinary professionals believed “by May.”
When asked about safety measures that clinics implemented for their staffs, the overwhelming majority offered curbside service, limiting clients in the building, and social distancing between clients and staff. Most were asking staff to wear surgical masks when working with pet patients or interacting with clients, but few required masks to be worn at all times. About half were using gowns and gloves, and only a few advocated face shields or eye protection. None offered anything to clients other than hand sanitizer and occasional surgical masks.
On a personal note, I was disappointed to hear that only about a quarter of the veterinary clinics I surveyed were offering telemedicine to their clients. Instead, many utilized videoconferencing as clients waited in cars as their pets were examined in the clinic. Almost all were refilling prescription medications and supplies over the phone, with some using an online store and most asking clients to pick up purchases at the clinic after prepayment.
The resounding sentiment was “The end is near” and “We’ve almost made it.” The fear and pessimism of four to five weeks ago has been largely replaced with cautious optimism. While I’m concerned this may prove to be a premature declaration of victory and that prolonged unemployment and economic recession might become apparent over the coming months, there was no denying the feeling among my veterinary peers of “We’re almost done.” I pray they’re right. I fear this is far from over.
Stay safe and give your pets a hug from me. We got this. It just may take a little longer than we want.
We want to hear from you: How has the COVID-19 emergency affected you, your practice or your veterinary business? Email editor Ken Niedziela at [email protected].
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