RALEIGH, N.C. — Veterinary hospitals are donating breathing machines, masks, gowns and other vital equipment and supplies purchased with Fido in mind, but now being redeployed to help doctors fight the spread of COVID-19 among humans.
"We buy at the same stores,” said Paul Lunn, dean of the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, which on Monday turned over two full-service ventilators, 500 protective suits and 950 masks for use in area hospitals. “There's no difference in the equipment.”
In response to a call last week by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue for materials to combat the pandemic, vet schools from North Carolina to Colorado to New York are stepping up.
There are 30 fully accredited veterinary medical schools in 26 states, according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. Of those, 27 have veterinary teaching hospitals with comprehensive services treating everything from pet cats and dogs to horses and other large animals. Lunn said the schools have identified more than six dozen ventilators that could be commandeered for human treatment.
The 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza had veterinarians readying to help in this kind of emergency, he added: "This isn't the first time we've prepared for this, although it's the first time in my personal experience that we've actually had to pull the trigger."
Private institutions are also heeding the call.
Dr. Virginia Sinnott-Stutzman, chair of the Infection Control Committee at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, said members of the Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society have identified about 100 full-service ventilators that can provide long term breathing support. She said there are also hundreds more relatively simple anesthesia ventilators — “basically like an automated hand squeezing a bag ... to get air into the patient” — nationwide that could be pressed into service, though it amounts to just a dent in the overall need with officials saying tens thousands of ventilators are needed in New York alone.
“While that may not seem like a lot, if it's, you know, your grandmother, spouse that gets that ventilator, we're hoping it can save a life," she said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.
Experts say there is no evidence that household pets can contract the disease.
The Colorado State University vet school delivered to Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins a breathing machine that was “brand new, right out of the box,” professor Tim Hackett said. “We did not get a chance to use it."
And in New York, the hardest-hit place in the United States by the new coronavirus, the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has loaned two full-service ventilators and a high-flow oxygen unit to a hospital in Manhattan. It is also preparing to send three full-service breathing machines and 19 of the smaller anesthesia ventilators to Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, where the vet school is located.
Dean Lorin Warnick, whose institution has also provided hundreds of respirator and surgical masks, and testing materials, said the college is providing only essential emergency service to animal patients and following FDA guidelines on conserving protective equipment.
The aim, Warnick said, is “to make sure we can divert as much of our supply as possible to human health care.”
Beyond equipment and supplies, veterinarians are looking to help out with operating and bed space, and even to detail staffers to coronavirus duty.
“We also made contingency plans to go a lot further," Lunn said. To provide our people … as technical experts who could work under the supervision of medical doctors, possibly to provide our physical facility. Because we have large hospital spaces with piped oxygen and a variety of other medical supplies.”
Hackett said the veterinary and human health systems already collaborate a lot.
“There are times we have to run over there and get drugs that we don't carry, pieces of equipment or parts," he said. "They've always been very open. So it's really, it's really nice to be able to pay that back."
Kevin Unger, president and CEO of Poudre Valley, said he’s heard stories animals coming to its facilities after hours for CAT scans and MRIs, and agreed it's a relationship that “goes both ways.”
“Colorado State really stepped up in a big way,” he said. “Go Rams!”
But fear not for the nation's furry critters — Warnick and others said they have retained enough equipment to care for people’s pets.
“They are really part of the family,” Warnick said. “We are in it together.”
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