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Dispatch from New Zealand

Auckland veterinarian reports from a country lauded for its pandemic response

May 4, 2020 (published)
By Lisa Wogan

Oliver Reeve photo
While New Zealand has been under COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, Dr. Oliver Reeve has reduced his time in clinic to two or three days a week. During one stretch at home, he dyed his hair blue, temporarily.

Dr. Oliver Reeve lives in Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. A native of the city, he is 44, married to a teacher, and they have two teenage children. He owns the Onewa Road Veterinary Hospital, a four-veterinarian companion animal practice on the city’s North Shore.

By email, Reeve answered questions about everyday life in a country that appears to be the gold standard for managing the pandemic. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New Zealand was on Feb. 27. As of May 1, the country had logged 1,487 cases and 20 deaths, according to counts provided by the country’s Ministry of Health. 

Why do you think your country has been so successful in controlling the spread of the virus?

The daily numbers (reported as confirmed and probable) have been dropping to single digits in the last week. We had three cases today, two yesterday [April 29 and 30]. The cases we have been seeing are almost all related to existing and known clusters or imported, i.e., New Zealanders returning home who are quarantined on arrival.

I think the real success that is touted is the fact that there is no community transmission of cases, i.e., we are not seeing any cases of COVID where we don't know where it came from. All the cases are related to existing ones. For example, if a spouse in lockdown catches her partner’s COVID that is a known chain of transmission and under control as both people are already quarantined.

The New Zealand government is claiming to have eliminated the virus, as in all cases are known and there is no community spread. All surveillance testing in the community is negative. This is slightly different from eradication, which is no existing cases of the virus in the country. Not sure if we'll ever eradicate it while New Zealanders continue to return home from overseas. As they are under compulsory government quarantine on arrival, it should not prove to be a huge issue.

I think New Zealand has done very well because the virus was slow to arrive here, which gave us time to observe what was happening elsewhere in the world. Scientists and epidemiologists advised the government that our hospitals and contact-tracing abilities would be completely overwhelmed by an unchecked pandemic. I assume that information was what led the government to quickly impose a travel ban [on most foreigners and nonresidents coming into New Zealand], and then, soon after, a total lockdown, other than for essential workers.

My feeling is that clear, regular communication from the government has reassured people that we are doing the right thing. There's definitely a feeling that we are all in this together and that what we are doing benefits everyone. There has been some level of police enforcement of the rules, but, as is typical for New Zealand, it's very light-handed — more communication- and education-oriented than punitive.

Your government instituted nearly five weeks of "level 4" lockdown restrictions. What did that mean for daily life?

For most people, this meant just staying at home and little else. It's actually been quite nice having family time without the time pressure constraints of normal working life. I've had lots of time for cooking for the family and the dog has enjoyed lots of walks in the local area (we are not allowed to travel out of the area and need to exercise locally). The only time we really leave is going to the supermarket, but mostly we've had our groceries delivered, so trips have been minimal. As an essential worker, I have been working two or three days a week.

Restrictions have been eased a bit this week to level 3, what has changed?

Restaurants, cafes and fast food were all closed completely. Now, we can get takeout, which is nice. Still no dining in. More people are allowed to work now, which is great for people’s finances. There is a bit of traffic on the road, whereas in lockdown level 4 it was eerily quiet on my drive to work. At level 3, there is still no socializing.

How have you and your fellow citizens responded to measures to contain the virus?

I think the vast majority have been compliant. People want this over and done with. The message from the government was go hard and go early. I think we are hoping this plan can get us back to "normal" as quickly as possible. There's certainly been some feelings of outrage on social media if other citizens have been seen to be noncompliant. There's a feeling of "don't ruin this for the rest of us."

You said your practice has been open. I take it the government designated veterinary practices as essential services? How do you and your colleagues protect yourselves at work?

Our practice has remained open as an essential service. We had to register with the Ministry of Primary Industries to be allowed to remain open. This was a quick online process where we outlined the ways that we were keeping staff safe. A couple of weeks later, we were subjected to a surprise onsite audit, so they are taking it seriously.

To keep staff safe, we have split into two separate work teams that each work two or three days a week. If one team was exposed to COVID, they would stop working and the other team would take over. It also allows more social distancing within the clinic, having smaller teams. No clients are allowed in the clinic. Animals are brought into the clinic by a nurse in full PPE (personal protective equipment), and then the vet conducts the consultation and explains treatment over the phone. The nurse returns the animal and meds to the client in the carpark. Payments are made via online banking or a mobile payment terminal the nurse takes out to the car park. The mobile terminal is covered and sanitized after every use.

Our front door is locked and there is a trestle table in front of it. We use the table as a visual and physical barrier, as well as ample signage on the front door, to prevent people from coming in. Prescription food and medication refills are left on the table for owners to collect. We also courier out food and meds.

Staff change clothes before they go home, and shower when they get home. We are wearing face masks if we are in close proximity to each other while working. Our receptionist, whose immune system is compromised, worked from upstairs. She had a computer and phone setup and could answer the phone, make bookings, etc., while being isolated from the rest of the staff. She has since been able to move back downstairs.

We have an externally accessed isolation ward and full PPE, including gowns, gloves, masks and full face shields to nurse any animals that are owned by COVID-infected people. Luckily, we have not had to use this ward so far. Lots of handwashing and wiping down and sanitizing surfaces as well. Something we are used to doing at the vet clinic already.

Are there restrictions on the purposes for which people may see the veterinarian for their pets? Are you modifying what your clinic offers?

At level 4, we were seeing only animals that were sick, in pain or suffering in some way. We were not doing annual health checks, routine vaccinations, nail clips, anal gland expression or elective surgery. We were vaccinating puppies and kittens as the feeling was that leaving them unvaccinated was too risky, especially as we have had a parvovirus outbreak recently. The clients were very understanding and supportive except for maybe the odd nail clip. The convoluted stories we got to trick us into doing a nail clip were impressive to hear.

What is a day in your practice like now? How is it different from three months ago?

Everything takes such a long time, especially with half the number of staff we normally have. Workflow is so much less efficient. We have doubled our consult times to half an hour, and this is only just enough time. We haven't increased our charges, as I'm conscious that it's a financially difficult time for people and I don't want to seem to be taking advantage of the situation or price gouging.

I do miss having people in the clinic. There's normally a friendly bustling energy that's missing. I also dislike having to do complicated case discharges over the phone. I worry about how much people are understanding on phone calls. It's especially tricky if people speak English as a second language. On a phone call, there's none of the body language or facial communication that you get in person.

Have you seen changes in pet owners’ attitudes about why they are seeking veterinary care during the pandemic?

Owners have really got the message. They are only seeking vet attention for things that are appropriate. My main concern has been people not seeking care when they needed it, but this hasn't seemed to be a problem.

I am surprised by how many people have been seeking regular worm and flea treatment during lockdown. I guess after all these years, we've got at least some of our clients well trained for prophylactic parasite management.

Have you seen a reduction in revenue? As a practice owner, how will you cope with the loss?

Onewa Road Veterinary Hospital photo
Drs. Richard McKee and Oliver Reeve co-own and operate Onewa Road Veterinary Hospital on New Zealand's North Island. In a photo taken last Thursday, they wore floral shirts because Thursdays are floral shirt day — a tradition that continues despite the pandemic.

Revenue is significantly down, but our business expenses aren't, so that's really going to affect profit. While the staff are working 20 to 30 hours a week (in their two separate teams), instead of the regular 40+ hours a week, we have elected to keep paying them as if they are working a full week. By we, I mean myself and my business partner, Dr. Richard McKee. This has been made possible by some government partial wage subsidies. I am also hoping it's a good investment in staff morale. I want staff to look back and see that we treated them as well as we could have during this time. I know people talk in the vet industry, and if my staff say good things about us to friends and colleagues in the industry, it helps a lot when we go to hire new staff.

In terms of keeping the practice solvent: As an essential business, we have been lucky enough to stay open. So while revenue is down, we are getting regular revenue and should be able to cover our bills. The business has some money in the bank as a cushion that will keep us going in the short term. But we need to make sure the business is not running at a loss that would be unsustainable in the long term.

Unfortunately, our business-interruption insurance does not cover pandemics, which is pretty frustrating given how much we pay in insurance premiums. It does seem ironic that the New Zealand taxpayer is bailing out businesses, while the private insurance sector continues to collect our premiums.

Ultimately, reduced revenue will affect dividends that we can pay out to the business owners. It's not at a level yet where I would consider wage reductions or staff layoffs, but I expect the pandemic will have a long tail and generally suppress clinic business for some time. It was something we saw during the GFC (global financial crises).

While Richard and I have kept staff on full-pay during the lockdown, the reduced revenue may affect our ability to give pay rises this year, and Christmas bonuses may be leaner than previous years. We have given the staff pay rises every year since we bought the business three years ago. They are based on personal performance and business profit/growth. While the performance of the team has been exemplary, I'm not sure if our profitability or growth is going to allow pay rises. We'll have to see.

If financial conditions were depressed for a long time, we would look at possibly reducing hours for our regular locum vet and reducing nursing numbers through natural attrition. I don't see any need to make anyone redundant, but if a nurse resigned, we may look at not replacing that staff member until business improved.

What effects, good or bad, has the crisis had on pets?

I think dogs are loving it. There has been a lot of regular dog walking happening. I know my dog is thrilled having everyone home all the time (although she loves coming to work as well). My main concern is that there will be some separation anxiety issues when people return to work. The other issue is socializing puppies during lockdown. We have an information sheet from a veterinary behaviorist that we have been sending to clients with puppies. We are also looking at putting together an online version of our puppy preschool, but we may not need this if lockdown keeps easing.

We have not had any clients elect to have pets euthanized due to losing their job and not being able to financially take care of a sick animal any more, but I know colleagues who have.

Where have you found support and insights for dealing with the pandemic?

The New Zealand Veterinary Association has been extremely proactive in putting out information about the lockdown, and how to practice during different levels of the lockdown. Initially, they were providing daily updates as well as lots of resources for us. This was my main source of information on how to change our practice.

I also talked to my father a lot to see what he thought about our COVID protocols. He is a doctor and a public health medical officer. He was quite interested in comparing what we were doing with human GP practices. He worked SARS and swine flu, too, so this is not his first epidemic but definitely the worst. He normally spends his time looking after New Zealand’s intake of UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) refugees and also managing and treating people with tuberculosis and other public health-related issues.

Do you know anyone who has or had COVID-19?

No.

How has the emergency affected your personal and family life?

Family life has been great. I've really enjoyed spending time at home with my wife. She puts up with me being absent quite a lot with long days at the clinic, although I do work a four-day week normally, so it's not too bad. Homeschooling the kids is a mixed bag. My daughter needs to be torn away from the computer or she would be doing school work until past bedtime. Homeschooling my son is like pulling teeth and getting blood out of a stone at the same time. I have pretty much left that to my wife, who is a teacher/special educator with the patience of a saint. But even she has reached her limit at times.

When I've been stressing about revenue loss at the clinic, I try to flip it around that spending all this time with my wife and kids is pretty special and that's really worth something, too.

Do you do anything else to safeguard your emotional health?

I'm normally a very optimistic and outgoing person. I'm hoping that this will all be OK in the end, but I really don't know. I have been brooding on it a lot and incessantly reading about it online. The best things I do to shake myself out of it are having coffee on the lawn with my wife, the dog and our bunnies; walks; and distracting myself on the PlayStation. I think going for a decent bike ride is something that really makes me feel better.

What would you like people outside of New Zealand to know about your country during the pandemic?

Everything is going pretty well here, with regards to combating the virus. The lockdown has not been quite as draconian as it's been portrayed in some overseas media. Just imagine staying home all day and then having to line up for the supermarket, that's pretty much what it's been like. We won't be having foreign tourists back for a while, but we look forward to them returning. New Zealanders love to share this beautiful country with tourists.

Do you see any silver linings to this emergency situation?

There will be valuable lessons learned. I'm hoping it will get governments to put more money into public health initiatives. I'm hoping it will increase global vaccination rates. I think it will open people’s eyes about how we can achieve big things if we really need to. Maybe this will empower movements in global warming initiatives.

It has been quite inspiring seeing the team at work rise up to this challenge. It has all happened so fast, and the changes were dramatic. Every single staff member has stepped up. I haven't had a single complaint, even though I did create a means for them to give us anonymous feedback.


VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



Information and opinions expressed in letters to the editor are those of the author and are independent of the VIN News Service. Letters may be edited for style. We do not verify their content for accuracy.



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