Veterinarians invited to administer COVID-19 vaccines

Emergency authorizations inspire enthusiasm, raise questions

Published: December 18, 2020
By Lisa Wogan

Photo by Melanie Browning
Melanie Browning, a registered veterinary technologist in Winnipeg, Manitoba, pictured with her dog Lily, applied on Wednesday to help administer the COVID-19 vaccine. Manitoba is the first, and so far only, province in Canada that includes veterinary professionals among those eligible to help with the mass vaccination campaign.

The U.S. state of Connecticut and Canadian province of Manitoba are taking steps to enlist licensed veterinary professionals along with other health care workers to administer vaccines against COVID-19, as the countries began this week to deliver the first shots in the quest to end the coronavirus pandemic.

The Connecticut Department of Public Health issued an order on Dec. 7 authorizing podiatrists, dentists, dental hygienists, emergency medical technicians, paramedics and veterinarians who have received proper training to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Some Connecticut veterinarians learned about the order through an email from public health officials last week addressed to "Connecticut Licensed Health Care Professional," and asking recipients to answer a survey "to assist in determining how many individuals are interested in becoming eligible to administer COVID 19 vaccinations during mass vaccination events." The deadline for survey responses is today.

Michael San Filippo, a spokesperson for the American Veterinary Medical Association, said he was unaware of any other state that had taken this step. "We were just recently made aware of the Connecticut request and are looking into it," he told the VIN News Service by email.

Asked what veterinarians should consider if they wish to participate, San Filippo identified liability protection as a concern.

"Typically, professional liability policies cover the veterinarian in their delivery of veterinary services; human vaccination would seem to fall outside the scope of those services," he said. "Veterinarians should contact their professional liability carrier to see whether they are covered. They should also see what coverage might be provided by the state/local authority and also reach out to their personal insurer to see if this would be covered under any umbrella policy."

San Filippo also encouraged veterinarians to consider the potential increased exposure risk at a time when COVID-19 case numbers are high around the country, which, he said, "would be of particular concern if the veterinarian has any of the identified comorbidities that put individuals at increased risk of severe disease."

The Connecticut Department of Public Health did not respond to emails and calls from VIN News.

A department webpage for the COVID-19 vaccination training programs said the training is in development in a collaboration with the University of Connecticut School of Pharmacy. As of this morning, the page did not detail how the vaccinations would take place, whether vaccinators would be vaccinated, whether the work would be on a voluntary or paid basis, or address questions about liability. The order stipulates that a health care professional shall be at vaccination sites. 

In May, Nevada authorized a role in pandemic response for veterinarians and veterinary technicians, including them among a wide array of health care workers who could be mobilized as part of an emergency medical corps if the pandemic overwhelmed resources. The scope of practice for veterinarians in that state to assist with pandemic response includes triage and patient monitoring, COVID-19 testing, intravenous fluid administration, IV catheter placement, treating emergencies (hemostasis, bandaging, splinting, local anesthesia and suturing), airway maintenance (oral, nasal, pharyngeal and intubation), phlebotomy and giving vaccines. 

However, there have been no specific actions to date to activate veterinarians to administer vaccines, according to Dr. Jon Pennell, who spearheaded the effort to include veterinarians in the corps and allow for an increased scope of practice.

Manitoba's order includes veterinary technologists

In an order issued Dec. 9, Manitoba officials deemed a wide slate of health care workers eligible to administer the vaccine. The authorization continues until the day the Minister of Health, Seniors and Active Living deems the coronavirus no longer a serious and immediate threat to Manitobans. The slate encompasses dentists, medical laboratory technologists, midwives, occupational therapists, pharmacists, physiotherapists, respiratory therapists, second-year students and former practitioners in these areas, paramedics, veterinarians and veterinary technologists. (Technologist is another word for technician and is the preferred term in parts of Canada.)

Melanie Browning, a registered veterinary technologist (RVT) in Winnipeg, saw a story last week about Manitoba's order, and hopefully scanned the list of eligible professions. She was thrilled to see her own listed there.

"I was surprised, but super proud our profession was deemed capable," she said. Along with that pride came a desire to participate.

Browning, who works part-time in the evenings, talked with her mom and husband, who gave their full support. "Everyone says, 'That's awesome; you're helping," she said. "I want to be part of the solution."

A webpage about the vaccine rollout lists five positions for which the province is hiring: immunization team members, clinic managers, immunization clinical leaders, clinic navigators and post-immunization observation team members. In all cases, pay is said to be "based on classification of incumbent." The posting also states that people who administer the vaccine will be prioritized to be immunized.

Browning submitted an application with her resume and a copy of her certificate of registration with the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association (MVMA) on Wednesday. If she clears the first hurdle, the next step would be an interview. She said there is no defined timeframe for when she will hear back. If she is hired, she would have to take an 8-hour "micro-credential" course through a community college in Winnipeg, covering things like vaccine handling and storage and including an in-person skills lab.

While she has some concerns about being exposed to more people, Browning said, "The benefits of being able to help my fellow Manitobans outweigh my concerns."

Manitoba is currently the only province to make veterinary professionals eligible to vaccinate people for COVID-19, according to MVMA president Dr. Alison Litchfield. In a province with a relatively small population spread out over a large area, they could play an especially important role.

"Veterinarians are often some of the only trained health professionals in more rural settings and may be an asset for rolling out vaccines in our rural districts," Litchfield said by email.

In the past week, the central Canadian province has had 24.3 cases per 100,000 people, which is the second-highest case rate in the country, according to The New York Times. On Wednesday, health care workers became the first Manitobans to be vaccinated.

Litchfield said it's good for the profession to participate. "It is wonderful to see that the government has acknowledged the skills, good judgment and training of veterinarians and RVTs," she said. "This is such a great opportunity to showcase veterinary professionals and their commitment to their communities and One Health initiatives." (One Health is the concept that the health of people, other animals and the environment are interconnected.)

Litchfield said a human health practitioner will be at each vaccination site to manage potential vaccine reactions. 

Across the country in British Columbia, Dr. Marco Veenis, a director with the Society of British Columbia Veterinarians, which is a chapter of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, said veterinarians are eager to help. However, he said, it's not clear veterinary reinforcements will be needed in B.C.

"If I would be asked to help out then yes, I am willing," he said. "Veterinarians play an important role in public health."

Even if veterinarians aren't required, some may have helpful assets: Veenis noted that for reproduction work, some veterinarians store semen and embryos (in the case of cattle) in nitrogen freezers that could be deployed to keep the COVID-19 vaccines cold. The first vaccine available, made by Pfizer, must be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius.

This is not the first call for veterinarians to pitch in directly with COVID-19 response. In the early days of the pandemic, several U.S. states and the United Kingdom called on veterinarians to help or be ready to help as needed in roles as diverse as "respiratory assistants" and grief support. Veterinarians also proactively donated equipment, including ventilators, and suggested they'd be ready for a more hands-on role, if needed.

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