Tens of thousands of doctors and community service workers are masking up every day to meet vulnerable patients and clients, but they aren’t considered “frontline workers” when it comes to COVID-19 vaccine eligibility. They are undeniably working to save lives, but their own safety must depend on a personal gamble. The only factor that makes these professionals different from other health care workers is the focus of their compassion: animals.
While several states are now expanding vaccination eligibility for frontline nonprofit workers, including some veterinarians and shelter staff, other state regulations are murky, especially as they relate to veterinarians in private practice. Many vaccination eligibility rules explicitly deprioritize veterinarians and shelter workers, treating pets more like indulgences than the critical companions and family members they are. Because pets are essential, so too are the workers dedicated to protecting their lives.
What’s ironic is that veterinarians are being allowed and encouraged to help administer the vaccine to humans, yet are not eligible for vaccination priority themselves.
Shelter workers and veterinarians are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure because they often need to see clients face-to-face for reasons including pet pick up and drop off expert consultations, and adoption finalization. Since most medical procedures cannot be performed with staff six feet apart, veterinary teams also have no choice but to work in close proximity, even when adhering to strict social distancing and enhanced safety protocols.
Open-admission shelters cannot turn animals away—regardless of the pandemic’s impact on their unprotected staff—which has resulted in some shelters having to transfer animals to partner organizations due to COVID-related staffing shortages. And many animal rescue organizations partner with law enforcement and social service agencies to respond to animals with urgent needs in their communities, which often requires animal welfare workers to enter unfamiliar homes and facilities, elevating their COVID-19 exposure risks.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, many local and state governments rightfully recognized the essential community role of animal shelters by including them in safety orders that allowed them to operate. Shelters and rescues continued their compassionate work while taking necessary precautions to protect their staff, volunteers, and the public by wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing. But no one is thoroughly protected until they are vaccinated, and anyone working daily to save, protect, and preserve the lives of others should be prioritized.
I urge you to contact your state lawmakers and ask them to designate animal shelter staff and veterinarians eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine so they can continue providing the highest level of service and compassion to people and pets faithfully and fearlessly.
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