RINER — Dogs and cats may not have to worry about COVID-19, but the pandemic viral infection is changing how some veterinarians practice.
At Riner Animal Hospital on Thursday, that meant Bear the black lab got his vaccines in the clinic while his ride, Joe Richmeier, sat in his truck in the parking lot. And Bear got a little walk from his vet, Dr. Lindsey Mabe, who brought the 1-year-old canine outside when his appointment was over.
It’s all part of the new way the clinic handles patient care. For now, animal patients come inside, but their owners don’t. All communication and payment is done in the parking lot or by phone.
“We’re really just trying to take every precaution to prevent exposure,” Mabe said. And the new service reduces the need to constantly sanitize the waiting room. That allows the staff to conserve cleaning supplies that are already in short supply.
“I really appreciate them doing that,” Richmeier said. “I’m sure it’s inconvenient.”
Mabe said it’s a little more work for the staff but worth it for everyone’s safety.
Dr. Richard Wright, practice owner, said he implemented the procedures on Tuesday at the request of his staff. The change came after Gov. Ralph Northam announced new guidelines to slow the spread of coronavirus in the state.
Northam announced Monday that gatherings of more than 10 people, including in most places of business in the state, are prohibited, and people with elevated risk, such as the elderly and those with chronic health conditions, are asked to voluntarily quarantine themselves.
So far in Virginia, more than 1,900 people have been tested for the novel coronavirus and at least 117 cases have been confirmed as of midday Friday, including one in Botetourt County, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Two people have died in the state, and at least 19 have been hospitalized.
The changes at Riner help the clinic comply with guidelines to slow the spread.
It’s not unusual to have “up to 10 people in the waiting room all clustered together, and that’s not good,” Wright said. “If the owner wants to hold their dog, you’re looking in the dog’s eyes, and there’s a lot of close contact there.”
So far clients have been positive about the change, he said.
“It’s a great idea,” said Rick Barrow, who came to the clinic on Thursday with his wife, Deb, to pick up prescription food for their cat, Izzy. “Everybody’s got to be safe.”
The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s teaching hospital in Blacksburg was among the first veterinary practices to institute a drop-off-only policy starting on March 13, director Terry Swecker said. It applies to small and large animal clients.
“We’re big, meaning we have a lot of people,” Swecker said. “I’m trying to protect people, both my people and the clients.”
As a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation with dozens of medical and other support staff, faculty, students and practitioners potentially on site at any given time, preventing coronavirus infection was a particular concern, Swecker said.
Policies meant to minimize the number of staff and clients on site were formed with advice from the college’s public health experts, Swecker said.
Veterinary students were recently sent home to complete their semesters remotely, and the hospital is working to tailor its staffing to three priority areas: emergency services for all cases where the animal’s life is in danger, care of existing patients with conditions such as cancer and existing clients with cases that require timely treatment.
Appointments for vaccinations and other lower priority services, as well as enrolling new patients who need those nonemergency services will be delayed until the COVID-19 threat passes, Swecker said.
His advice to all clients: Call ahead and be prepared to talk about your case on the phone and to provide photos and even videos of the problem. And if the animal needs to be seen at the hospital, be prepared to drop it off, he said.
But most private practice clinics so far have made drop-off services optional.
On Monday, Companion Animal Clinic in Blacksburg implemented an optional “limited contact appointment” system for clients who want it, practice manager Sarah Perdue said. On Thursday, they had five such appointments.
“We’re into the unknown at this particular point, so we want everyone to have the option to feel comfortable, but for their pets to still receive care,” Perdue said.
So far, the majority of clients have wanted regular appointments, she added. But that could change if coronavirus begins to spread in the New River Valley.
Roanoke Animal Hospital also is offering drop-off and other limited contact options, but clients have so far shown limited interest in them, Dr. Thomas Blaszak said.
“We’re cleaning nonstop to make sure if it [coronavirus] does at all step into our hospital, hopefully we’re killing it before it goes anywhere else,” Blaszak said. The hospital also has asked staff members who have traveled recently to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Worldwide, more than 250,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed as of Friday. More than 11,000 people have died.