As the COVID-19 crisis evolves, vet clinics, just like other businesses, are working out how to run their workplaces safely for customers and for staff members.
It has been a difficult time since mid-March: as essential services, vets remained open, but with new ways of doing things, generally using a 'closed door' policy (i.e. taking animals in at the door, dispensing medications and pet foods to the client at the door/their car, etc.) Vets and clinic staff have done far more communicating by phone, which has presented its own challenges, with phone lines busier than ever before.
We have all spent more time outside too, with vets talking to clients in car parks beside their cars, and pet owners waiting outside before being handed medications and pet food. It has been fortunate that the weather has been unusually dry: heavy rain would have made everything far more complicated.
As we all move towards a new "normal", vets are reviewing precisely how to do this safely. As part of this, the Irish government has published "Return to Work Safely Protocol" which is a compulsory document for every business and organisation in Ireland, including veterinary practices. It's a 29-page document, along with check lists and forms to be completed. Both employers and workers have responsibilities under the document. It makes sense that clients of veterinary practices also know about the protocol, so that they understand changes that will be happening when they next visit their local vet clinic.
Under the Protocol, vet clinics, like all businesses, have obligations that are include the need to:
+ Conduct risk assessments and safety statements.
+ Implement control measures to minimise any risk of virus transmission.
+ Introduce protocols for social distancing, respiratory hygiene, and hand-washing or sanitising.
+ Anyone who has been off work needs to complete a "return to work" form at least 3 days before returning to work.
+ Provide Covid-19 induction training for workers.
+ Have in place an emergency response procedure, including an isolation area, for anyone showing signs of COVID-19 in the workplace.
+ While the advice is still to work from home where possible, where this is impossible (which is the case for most people working in vet clinics), then employers must make sure that any "at-risk" workers are preferentially supported (e.g. maintaining a physical distance of 2 metres).
Vets have been busy dealing with these issues behind the scenes, just like other businesses. And as well as these "back of house" measures, vets need use their own medical and health knowledge to work out how to work safely with clients and pets "front of house", in their daily business.
As the incidence of SARS-CoV-2 in the community reduces, many vets are starting to feel comfortable about admitting clients into the building for consultations. However, measures still need to be taken to reduce close interactions in the building (i.e. client-client contact in the waiting room, client-staff contact in the consultation room).
Whilst it is not compulsory to wear a mask, most vets and staff are likely to follow the Chief Medical Officer's advice regarding use of face masks to decrease risk of viral spread from an infected person. So if members of the public are admitted to veterinary practice premises, then it may be suggested that they wear face masks, and all staff that are in the public areas or otherwise interacting with the public may also wear face masks.
Vets are working out specific routines that suit their own premises, staff and routines. These may be posted in signage, on websites, and online. As an example, the following instructions are typical.
+ All visits strictly by appointment, with client waiting in their car until it's their time.
+ Entry to and from the building is controlled via a lock linked to an intercom.
+ Only one healthy adult may accompany the animal into the building. (Sadly, no more family visits to the vet for the time being)
+ The client is encouraged to don a face mask before entry and must perform hand hygiene on entry to the practice.
+ The client is directed to the consultation room door and asked to be seated outside it, in the waiting room, at least 2m away from anyone else.
+ The vet will discuss the details of the case with the owner on the phone or from over 2m away in the waiting room.
+ The vet will take the animal into the consult room without the owner, to examine and treat the pet.
+ The pet will be returned to the owner, and an arrangement for collecting medication and paying will be made.
+ On leaving, owners will be asked to perform hand hygiene before removing their mask if worn.
New measures like these can be more time consuming than the "old" normal, so many vet clinics are likely to be under more pressure than ever these days. Please bear with us: we will give your pets the care they need, but we just need to do this in a slightly different way, to keep all of us, animals and humans, safe and healthy.