At least 11 veterinary practices in Illinois have had an outbreak of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, five occurring in the past two months, according to the state Department of Public Health, which issued an alert Wednesday.
The announcement comes as cases surge across the Midwest. Illinois health officials reported 6,363 new cases today, the highest number reported in a single day. Since March, more than 395,000 people have tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the state; at least 9,675 died due to COVID-19-related health complications.
The outbreak in veterinary practices involves at least 41 people confirmed positive for the virus. Dr. Connie Austin, Illinois public health veterinarian, said the department does not know the health status of these individuals.
The source of the infections appears to be clinic staff, Austin said by email to the VIN News Service. "It is most likely that a staff member became infected and then spread to other employees in the practice," she said. "There were several clinics where people were working while ill."
So far, state officials believe no pet owners have been infected. The impacted practices are located throughout the state, authorities say, and there are no known links between them.
Clinics that experience outbreaks are expected to work with local health authorities on response protocols, which can include temporarily closing to clean and disinfect the facility, Austin said. Staff who test positive are advised to isolate according to local health department instructions. Their close contacts should quarantine for 14 days.
Local health departments are responsible for contact tracing, according to Austin. As part of this process, officials are to notify anyone who's been within 6 feet of an infected person for 15 minutes or more.
Because of reports that some employees worked while ill, Austin encourages employers to remind employees to take their temperatures before going to work and to alert a supervisor if they have any symptoms. She advises that symptomatic employees stay home and be tested.
In her email, Austin commented to veterinary staff: "It may seem like you are soldiering on and are helping to keep the clinic running smoothly if you work while ill but instead you are putting other people at the clinic at risk of getting infected."
She urged clinic owners to revisit sick-leave policies with the pandemic in mind. "If people are worried about not getting paid, they will likely hide their illness and work through a mild bout of COVID-19, which is not what you want," she said.
Raphael Moore, general counsel of the Veterinary Information Network, parent of VIN News, points out that sick leave not be seen as a burden. The Families First Coronavirus Recovery Act (FFCRA) provides paid sick leave to employees who are quarantined due to a COVID-19 diagnosis, or have symptoms and are seeking a diagnosis.
"Both owners and employees should be aware of it," Moore said. "The federal government has come through with up to 80 hours for you to stay home."
Under FFCRA, employers must provide 100% of an employee’s wage, up to a maximum of $511 per day, for up to 80 hours. Employers are reimbursed through a tax credit.
Austin also suggested clinic owners revisit their pandemic plan and double down on proven protocols such as masking, social distancing, handwashing and disinfecting regularly, and to remind staff to get vaccinated for influenza to curb the spread of respiratory illnesses unrelated to COVID-19.
The American Veterinary Medical Association offers additional guidance for protecting veterinary teams during the pandemic and managing employees with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.