The absence of clients in the lobby, faces hidden behind masks and all-too-familiar social distancing signs at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital are lingering reminders of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A year ago, the virus was rapidly spreading, and University and veterinary hospital officials were grappling with how to safely provide their patients care and emergency services not available elsewhere in the Pacific Northwest.

Today, even though many restrictions remain in place, the number of patients being seen at the veterinary hospital exceeds pre-pandemic levels. Like the University, it is inching closer to a full reopening, and health officials say it is one of many WSU success stories during the pandemic.

Despite nearly 3,000 COVID-19 positives among WSU students and staff since the start of the pandemic, not a single case of documented spread has been reported at the facility, even though staff never stopped providing care to patients.

“The Veterinary Teaching Hospital and the College of Veterinary Medicine are really one of the great successes that we can point to over the last year,” said Shawn Ringo, director of Occupational Health and Safety at WSU. “The veterinary hospital is something we can point to and say we did it right.”

One month before the shutdown, WSU leadership and hospital staff were already crafting plans to ensure the facility would continue safely operating and determine how it could assist in the event that area health care facilities were overwhelmed.

“There was a feeling that we were going to see it very quickly after the first cases in February,” said Jason Sampson, director of Environmental Health and Safety at WSU. “Leaders at the veterinary hospital played a big role early on in trying to figure out what they could do to help support the human side while still functioning in their own role in keeping their essential service of animals.”

Rising to the challenge

On March 14, 2020, just days after WSU announced it was canceling in-person instruction and moving to online forums, Dr. Debra Sellon, then director of the veterinary hospital, notified students and staff the teaching hospital would only accept “urgent and emergency patients.” While DVM students in their final year of training remained to complete their clinical rotations, other veterinary students were not allowed on the premises.

“That was one of the biggest challenges because the students do a lot of the work in the veterinary hospital,” Sellon said. “We were scaling back to emergencies only, but the definition of an emergency was anything that might be substantially worse off if not seen by a doctor within 30 days, which is a pretty broad definition.”

But others stepped up to ensure animals were cared for 24-hours a day.

“The doctors, including the faculty, residents, and interns, all took treatment shifts, and they worked nights and weekends—it was pretty amazing,” Sellon said. “They kept the hospital going, and we didn’t turn any emergencies or patients away.”

To reduce the risk of virus spread, the teaching hospital also stopped allowing clients inside the facility. Staff were designated as “runners” who would bring animals from the parking lot into the hospital, and video conferencing was used for veterinarians to communicate with clients. Hospital leadership also quickly put in place new payment options for clients, including an online portal and mobile credit card readers.

Personal protective equipment was required throughout the veterinary hospital, and the Environmental Health and Safety team set capacity limits for all rooms and examined ventilation and air exchange rates throughout the hospital and labs needed for instruction to ensure they were safe for staff and students.

“Because we are relatively rural, there’s no place else in the Inland Northwest that can do what we do for animals,” Sellon said. “There’s no private emergency, 24/7 critical care units like there are in big cities, so if we were to shut down, the animals would die, and students wouldn’t graduate. Everyone understood that—they are an incredible team.”

Protective measures work

Although the veterinary hospital and the college have had positive COVID-19 cases, the safeguards put in place prevented spread and protected students, staff, and clients.

“Despite having a frequency of COVID-19 among students and employees that was similar to that in the local population, we have not had a single case of transmission in more than a year of working in close quarters for extended periods of time—clear evidence that following safety guidelines and using appropriate PPE has allowed the Veterinary Teaching Hospital to continue to carry out its critical functions of education, companion animal care, and support of agriculture,” said Leslie Sprunger, associate dean for Professional Programs at the college.

Ringo and Sampson can each count on one hand how many days they’ve had off since last July when COVID-19 cases began to spike on the Palouse. On the frontlines, they are responsible for contact tracing nearly every positive case at WSU. They’ve each placed thousands of calls to trace exposures.

“We certainly had people who were in the Veterinary Teaching Hospital during their infectious period, but we didn’t see transmission,” Ringo said.

Going forward, they are confident the University and the college will fully reopen this fall.

“We are going to see a lot of the controls start to drop away,” Ringo said. “But we are still at the point where it depends on people doing their part and getting vaccinated.”