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COVID restrictions have some customers barking at veterinarian staff

"I think everybody is tired and frustrated and it comes out sideways,” one vet said. “We seem to get the brunt of things sometimes.” Vets in Minnesota have different rules to follow than other businesses.

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Dr. Sara Mattson with her dog, Griffin, outside Aurochs veterinary service in Audubon. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)
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Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people working at veterinarian offices have had to develop skin as thick as a malamute's fur.

“They want us to be like all the other businesses, as soon as the mask mandate was lifted, we started getting customers who wanted to come in and take their masks off,” said Dr. Samantha Zehr, one of five vets at the Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital. “But we’re not like other businesses -- in health care, we have to follow different rules.”

Unlike gas stations and retail stores, veterinarian clinics “have to work within the recommendations and requirements of not only the Minnesota Department of Health, but also the Minnesota Board of Veterinary Medicine, the Minnesota Veterinary Medicine Association … We are constantly evaluating the new information that is made available to us and adjusting our policies as we can,” the Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital said in a recent letter to customers.

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Dr. Samantha Zehr and her dog, Wrecker, at the Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

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We also have to meet OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration ) standards -- we have to provide a safe workplace for our employees,” Zehr said in an interview. “It’s not like we don't want to open our doors and have it back the way it used to be, we have to take into account these other factors.”

During the worst of the pandemic, only curbside service was allowed, meaning people dropped off and picked up their pets without ever going inside the building. It worked the same way for people picking up medications and pet supplies.

Now one masked person is allowed inside with their pet, but other services are still done curbside.

Not everyone has been gentle and understanding during the pandemic. “Our receptionists have had a lot of bad days because people have been so mean to them,” Zehr said. She estimated about 20% of customers have vented on staff to one degree or another.

Frustrated? Don't take it out on staff

“Our biggest message to the community is please be patient with us -- we are adapting policies as we can, making appointments as we can, trying to increase staffing as we can,” Zehr said. “I think everybody is tired and frustrated and it comes out sideways,” she said. “We seem to get the brunt of things sometimes.”

One staff person is currently out sick with COVID-19, which means the other unvaccinated staffers are also out in quarantine, so the staffing difficulties continue, she said.

Aurochs veterinary service in Audubon is also dealing with a labor shortage. “We went through two receptionists in the last 18 months. We’ve had to deal with a lot of rude clients over the last year, mad that they can’t come in,” said Dr. Sara Mattson. “Most people are pretty good about it, but there’s been a few bad apples.”

At Aurochs, one masked client (regardless of vaccine status) is now allowed inside with their pet for appointments, but most other business is still done curbside, she said.

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It didn’t help that veterinarian clinics were swamped with new clients last year. “This summer is not quite as crazy as last summer,” Mattson said. “Everybody seemed to get pets last summer, so we were booked out … They pretty much cleaned out the (animal) shelters, which is a good problem to have.”

Aurochs is caught up with its spay and neuter appointments, but is still booked out three weeks for regular appointments, she said.

The clinic may have to go back to full curbside status again, “depending on how the virus goes,” Mattson said. “The situation is very fluid, we’re taking it day by day as the CDC (updates its guidelines).”

She also asked clients to be patient, especially with emergency cases.

“We're just a single-doctor hospital. Some emergencies have to be referred to the Red River Animal Emergency hospital in Fargo -- we just don’t have the staff.”

Mattson urged people to act early if they are concerned about their pet’s health. “Don’t wait until the last minute and hope to get in,” she said.

How the pandemic affected Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital

In its July 21 letter to the community, Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital explained its very full schedule.

“As some of you have discovered, we are currently booking out 3 to 3.5 months on our annual exam/vaccine visits and 1-2 weeks on our sick/urgent care appointments.”

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The backlog goes back to the start of the pandemic: “It was a stressful time as jobs were put into a classification of ‘essential’ versus ‘nonessential.’ We were lucky enough to be considered essential and able to continue to care for our patients, but here is what happened behind the scenes:

“With the concern of human hospitals being overwhelmed with pandemic patients, all Minnesota veterinary clinics were asked to inventory their personal protective equipment, as well as their oxygen supplies and anesthesia machines.

“This list was then reviewed and surplus supplies were given to local hospitals/clinics. This left us short of exam gloves and surgical masks with the ever-present risk of losing our anesthesia equipment. We were glad to support our local communities as we waited to see what the pandemic would unleash. However, it did mean that we had to use some caution when it came to using our supplies.”

Then at the end of March and early April of 2020, “a directive arrived that no longer allowed us to see ‘nonessential’ appointments.”

The point was to decrease the risk of potential exposure, and the list of nonessential visits included annual exams-vaccines, spay-neuter surgeries, and mild dental disease cleanings.

“We immediately shut off our reminder system, as we did not know when we would be able to go back to seeing annual exam-vaccine visits,” the letter states. “We also split our staff into two teams so that in the event one team was exposed, the other team would be able to keep the hospital open. Our thoughts during this time focused not only on keeping our team safe but also remaining available for our patients, so we could continue to see them for sick-urgent care visits.”

This continued for 10 weeks. During those 10 weeks, “we were extremely busy as we were only running at half staff. We kept up with the sick-urgent care visits as best as we could and referred clients to the Red River Animal Emergency Hospital in Fargo when we had to. At the end of that time, we were able to start providing the nonessential services again.”

But the need for sick-urgent care appointments only seemed to go up during that time and afterward, “so it became a challenge to stay caught up with that, as well as starting to get caught up on the non-essential visits.

“We continued to prioritize our sick-urgent care appointments as we believed those to be the more time-sensitive appointments. We also had times when we were limited on what we could refer to the Red River Animal Emergency Hospital as they were also overwhelmed with cases.”

It took the Detroit Lakes animal Hospital about three months to catch up on its nonessential surgeries, and much longer to catch up on annual exam-vaccine appointments “as we continued to prioritize sick/urgent care appointments,” the letter said.

It was not until February that the hospital was able to catch up, and with staffing issues and changing protocol it’s an ongoing battle. So be patient with the receptionists and vet techs when you have to do business curbside, or have to wear a mask to get inside with your pet. There’s nothing they can do about it.

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Dr. Samantha Zehr and her dog, Wrecker, at the Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital. (Nathan Bowe/Tribune)

Related Topics: CORONAVIRUS
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