UT Veterinary School Moves to Contain COVID-19
With at least seven positive cases as of last week, the college — which never closed — is an indicator of what the rest of campus could see soon.
by jesse fox mayshark • August 10, 2020
The Animal hospital at the UT college of veterinary medicine is taking drop-off patients only.
When nearly the entire University of Tennessee-Knoxville campus shut down this spring, the College of Veterinary Medicine did not.
Some staff members question the safety protocols for workers at the animal hospital.
While most students were moved to online instruction, the college’s Veterinary Medical Center — the only academic animal hospital in the state — remained open as an essential service, though accepting only urgent care cases. Fourth-year students work in clinical rotations at the hospital, which are required for them to complete the program.
“Emergency cases went up about two to three times what they normally are,” said Dr. Marcy Souza, a professor of biomedical and diagnostic sciences at the college. “So there was still definitely demand for veterinary care for patients.”
Now, there have been at least seven positive cases of COVID-19 among staff and students at the college in recent weeks, including one believed to have been transmitted on campus.
College officials say the cases have been isolated and subject to intensive contact tracing. But they acknowledge that containing the spread will be a challenge.
In a college-wide email on July 29, Dean Dr. Jim Thompson wrote that six people at the college — four students and two clinicians — had tested positive for COVID-19. “Flattening the infection curve remains important for everyone,” he said in the email. “I was hopeful our firm biosafety approach could keep our college, hospital, and programs safe in the face of rising outside infection. I am deeply concerned that may not be true.”
None of those six were believed to have contracted the novel coronavirus while at the hospital. But Souza said last week that another person at the college tested positive and the transmission likely happened on campus.
Concerns and Protocols
Some students and staff have expressed frustration at what they characterize as an insistence on maintaining operations at the expense of personal safety.
Aly Chapman, a laboratory section chief in biomedical and diagnostic sciences at the college who has a master’s degree in public health, said she is particularly concerned by current rules that say faculty and staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 should continue to come to work as long as they are free of symptoms.
“The UTCVM administrative COVID-19 response policies directing exposed personnel to return to work are immovable and disregard physical and mental health,” Chapman wrote in an email. “Hundreds of people are now faced with increased risks of exposure, contrary to the evidence that shows testing, contact tracing, and quarantine are the best prevention from potentially profound sickness and death.”
Souza, who also has a master’s degree in public health, serves on the Knox County Board of Health, which has been directing the county’s COVID-19 response since being delegated the task in June.
She said the College of Veterinary Medicine early on established its own contract tracing teams, which have been vigilant in contacting anyone exposed to someone who has tested positive. The college instituted a face mask requirement in April, and already stringent disinfection protocols have been bolstered.
“Our hospital’s continually cleaned anyway,” Souza said. “And those efforts have just been stepped up to make sure that we're keeping our spaces clean and disinfected throughout the hospital.”
Animals are seen at the hospital on a drop-off and pick-up basis, with contact-free exchanges in the parking lot. Their owners or caretakers are not allowed inside the building.
Required to Work?
The college has made one major change since the positive cases were announced. In another email to students and staff on July 31, Thompson wrote that students identified as having had “close contact” with an infected person should immediately quarantine for 14 days. But faculty and staff classified as essential workers should continue to report even if they’ve been exposed, as long as they show no COVID-19 symptoms.
“If more concern develops or evidence of intra-hospital transmission becomes clear, it is possible we will move further to require all close contacts with positive COVID-19 individuals self-quarantine regardless of whether they are classified as essential healthcare workers,” Thompson wrote. “Adjustments to our educational program and hospital patient schedule will be necessary if we must move in that direction.”
Chapman said those assurances have not eased the minds of many at the college. She said she had raised concerns internally but did not believe the administration was taking adequate measures.
“From private and group discussions with students, faculty, and staff, I hear that many people are experiencing anxiety, fear, depression, and feelings of worthlessness,” she said. “Because of the existing policies, now these passionate people are responsible for both veterinary and human health care.”
Souza said the college is taking the threat of infection seriously while continuing to provide important services. And she said people are not being forced to work if they think it’s unsafe.
“I know that there was some concern that if someone was very worried and they didn't want to come to work, that they were not allowed to stay home,” Souza said. “That’s not the case. Essentially, what we've said is that if you are essential you can come to work. If you are not comfortable coming to work, then you need to work with your supervisor to make sure that we can still function.”
Chapman said that still puts pressure on staff who fear possible consequences if they object.
“In a spectacular fashion this college has doubled down on putting our people and their families, our patients, and this community at preventable risk,” she said. “Because of my training and belief in public health, respect and concern for the hundreds of students, my colleagues, and the patients in our CVM community, I am compelled to speak up. We can do better.”
Souza, on the other hand, said the college’s experiences in adjusting to the presence of the virus could be instructive for the rest of the Knoxville campus, which begins fall classes on Aug. 19.
“Being the college that’s never actually closed, I think we get to be the first on a lot of things,” she said. “I think having us as almost a small test population has been helpful in finding little holes in the system and ways to improve efficiencies.”
But she said she understood the fears and concerns many at the school may have.
“I tell our people that we've been a little bit of guinea pigs in the respect of trying to figure out how to respond with efficiency and with empathy,” Souza said. “Which I think is important, because people are really stressed out and we see it. Our faculty, staff and students, it's tough. There’s no right answer, and we’re trying to do the best we can.”