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Animal shelter experts offer resources, discuss impact of COVID-19

On March 27, Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University (MSMP) held a free online event for animal shelter veterinarians, staff and volunteers about the impact of COVID-19 on the state’s animal shelters. The session included an open Q&A session, during which MSMP faculty worked with participants to help shelters strategize around the diverse challenges they are facing during this pandemic and to find ways they can implement new approaches in such a rapidly changing environment. The event drew over 40 shelter veterinarians, staff and volunteers and lasted almost two hours.

“What is shocking about this moment in time is that all the things we normally preach in shelter medicine — spay/neuter before adoption, the urgent need for TNR [trap-neuter-return] services, minimizing lengths of stay in foster care — this pandemic has forced us to turn on its head,” said Elizabeth Berliner, D.V.M. ’03, the Janet L. Swanson Director of Shelter Medicine.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that all non-essential services across New York would be required to move to 100% workforce reduction on site, either by closing or shifting to remote work. Although animal shelters were deemed as providing essential services, shelter veterinarians and animal shelters quickly considered what this executive order meant for their roster of daily activities. With social distancing as the primary means of slowing the pandemic and reducing the overall caseload, the role of the shelter as a community resource and gathering center would obviously need to change.

National animal welfare and sheltering organizations, as well as shelter medicine academic programs, have been working with the findings and recommendations of health departments and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to provide animal shelters with shelter-specific COVID-19 resources around animal handling, emergency foster programs and changes in medical services and shelter operations in response to this pandemic. The need to provide social distancing for staff and volunteers, to preserve critical protective gear for the human health care field and to reduce the intake of animals into shelters have driven radical changes to animal shelter daily operations during this crisis. As information continues to evolve, interim guidelines continue to be updated on almost a daily basis, and COVID-19 continues to spread. New York City is the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, and New York had the most cases in the country.

“You are going to hear us say things that we never thought we would say. For instance, you need to stop considering spay/neuter an essential service at this time — for the safety of shelter staff and the benefit of the human medical field,” said Berliner.

During the online event, shelters were encouraged to think creatively about ways to move large numbers of animals quickly into foster care and adoptive homes, to provide pet food and other support for members of their community, and to support their staff, who are equally challenged by reduction in work hours and the stress of managing in these difficult times. They were also offered connections to the resources generated through the collaboration of major shelter medicine groups and programs, including MSMP.

With cases of COVID-19 still on the rise and its peak predicted to be still several weeks away, Gov. Cuomo noted, “This is not a sprint. This is a marathon.” Animal shelter leadership continues to address the daily challenges of providing the most humane live outcomes for animals in their care, and to rely on their communities for support. MSMP at Cornell will hold ongoing weekly online events over the next several weeks for animal sheltering organizations and shelter veterinarians to provide information and assistance and to address concerns related to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more information about COVID-19 and related events, please visit the COVID-19 Resources section of the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell website.

By Sarah Nickerson