By Matt Reese
There is legitimate concern out there for those on the front lines of human health during this pandemic, but those on the front lines of animal health are also of great importance to Ohio’s livestock farms and agricultural community.
“Being a veterinarian is always complicated, but right now during the COVID-19 situation, we are challenged to balance the needs of our patients — the pets or livestock and their health —the client health and financial well being, and of
course our employee health and financial well being,” said Dr. Mark Hardesty, with the Maria Stein Animal Clinic. “Way more than half of our business is with cattle, primarily dairy cattle, and of course they are essential for food production. That work has not changed much. There is some consulting where we would normally sit in a room with several decision makers and go through records and discuss parameters and objectives, some of those have been cancelled.”
When working with farm clients there have been some fairly minimal changes.
“It is not quite business as usual, but most of the time on farms we are a cow’s length apart anyways,” Hardesty said. “The workers and the farmers are not used to these situations, though. People working jobs other than agriculture may be used to seeing a stripe on the floor or an X where you’re supposed to stand. Our agricultural people are not. It is more of a family unit on the farm and whenever one person is exposed to something they probably all are.”
For farms and fellow veterinarians, Hardesty recommends making some changes to decrease the risk of COVID-19 infection to themselves and others.
“No hand shaking, wear gloves, maybe have a camper for quarantine, and clean restrooms and break rooms more frequently,” he said.
He sits on the board of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners that has issued the following recommendations.
- Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands on a frequent basis with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, as per CDC recommendations.
- Do not go to work if you are not feeling well, especially if you have a cough or a fever. Your clients should inform all employees to not come to work if they are feeling unwell. Management on farms should routinely look for ill employees and immediately send them home.
- Practice social distancing when possible. If you or your staff can perform some tasks remotely, it is a reasonable precaution to institute those steps within your practice.
- Farms, dairies, ranches and feedlots should only allow necessary and essential visitors on the premises. Those visitors not necessary for the day-to-day operation of the business should not be allowed onto the operation.
- Suppliers have stated that they are not currently experiencing and supply issues. Hoarding of supplies or bulk purchasing in anticipation of a shortage is not necessary and not recommended as it could create artificial product supply issues.
- Many states have urged veterinarians to delay elective procedures. This likely impacts primarily mixed animal veterinarians who work with companion animals. Veterinarians are being asked to limit elective procedures to decrease social interaction and decrease the use of personal protective supplies.
- Both veterinarians and producers should have plans and protocols in place in the event of staff shortages. Talk with your clients about the major job roles on their operation and assist with any cross-training where applicable. Clients should have a plan in place for continuity of day-to-day job functions in the event that employees self-isolate or are quarantined.
- Consider your mental health and well being as well as the mental health and well being of your clients and employees. The farm economy and stress of being a cattle veterinarian can be exacerbated during the uncertain times we are currently facing. Ask clients and employees how they are doing.
In terms of the treatment of pets, Hardesty said Maria Stein Animal Clinic has implemented more significant changes in recent weeks.
“On the pet side we have discussions every week as to what is essential to keep going and what is not. Certainly there are pet diseases that are zoonotic to humans that we want to continue to maintain prevention on and there are diseases that could be catastrophic if we don’t do the prevention,” he said. “There are tough decisions and more changes on how we are doing business.”
The clinic has increased the time between scheduled appointments to prevent multiple customers being present at the same time and, when possible, has implemented a curbside option where the people do not come into the clinic at all, just the pets. Medication pick-up over the counter has also been minimized.
“We have some dispensing of medication over the counter, but that is relatively minimal compared to what it was 30 years ago. Most of the medications we dispense are shipped directly to the farms,” Hardesty said. “There is some local traffic and now we want them to call ahead. We just run it out to their vehicle and away they go.”
Maria Stein Animal Clinic has also drastically changed office operations to address COVID-19 concerns.
“If one of our staff members would get infected we would essentially have to shut down for 14 days,” he said. “We had to lay off some of our assistants. Four or five of them are not working currently. So the people who are here who would normally be working until 3:30 in the afternoon are working later and instead of working three or four days a week are working two days a week so we have less actual staff onsite. We also introduced teaming. The same people are working Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the same people are working Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday in teams. So if one of them would become ill with COVID-19, we could isolate that team into quarantine for two weeks and we may pull some of our laid off people back into service to have enough staff. We have gone from most commonly six or seven people working in the main office at Maria Stine to three or four.”
Of course, cutting staff creates an increased workload for those who remain.
“We have cut staff and that is a challenge for getting the work done and a financial hardship for the staff members who are working less hours,” Hardesty said. “I am currently working on the application for CARES Act assistance. We appreciate our staff and what they do.”
If people do need to come in and meet, Hardesty is taking additional precautions. In the case of a sales call, the visitor must call when they arrive and meet in a garage that is separate from the clinic where there are two chairs set up more than 6 feet apart.
“It is not the way we normally do business, but we have to do some thinking about how we are going to conduct our business because we still need to do business,” Hardesty said. “We need to stay viable for our clients and our patients.”