Shelter medicine program navigates safely through pandemic challenges
Wednesday, June 23, 2021
Veterinary student Hayley Barkoviak, left, and Brad Crauer, clinical associate professor and director of the shelter medicine program at Kansas State University, works with a student on the shelter medicine program's community outreach vehicle, called Wellness on Wheels, or WOW. | Download this photo.
MANHATTAN — For the last six years, a large purple-and-white trailer from the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine has become a common sight on highways and roadways in northeast Kansas. And while the trips made by this trailer during its first five years were mostly smooth sailing, the global coronavirus pandemic effectively presented a number of metaphorical road hazards and obstacles.
Since first hitting the road on its maiden trip May 9, 2015, the K-State Mobile Surgery Unit has helped dozens of animal shelters and community organizations save on veterinary care costs and has drawn attention to the plight of homeless animals. The Mobile Surgery Unit has spent approximately 1,550 days and over 200,000 miles on the road over the last six years to reach the milestone of 28,000 surgeries. For each trip, students packed and loaded daily supplies in the 32-foot trailer, which sports the university's Powercat logo and wordmark, plus the slogan "Future Vets Helping Future Pets."
"The totally unprecedented nature of providing hands-on education in an outreach program during a pandemic has been challenging," said Brad Crauer, an associate clinical professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine. "Shelter med was the first veterinary service to shut down when the pandemic hit. We felt the conservation of personal protective equipment and surgical supplies was warranted given the uncertainty early in the outbreak. But we were also one of the first services back out in the field and did so with purpose and a process in place to keep all stakeholders safe."
From March 30 to May 11, 2020, clinical rotations for veterinary students — including the shelter medicine program — were all conducted remotely but still included active learning every day. In-person rotations restarted on May 26, 2020. Elizabeth Davis, head of the College of Veterinary Medicine's clinical sciences department, said that the shelter medicine rotation is the top clinical rotation choice of fourth-year veterinary students, with 90 students from the 100-plus member class of 2021 participating in the shelter medicine rotation.
"Shelter med is an outreach program providing surgical and medical services on-site at partner shelters," Crauer said. "When we rebooted the program after being offline for six weeks, it was very important that we not put our students or the people we serve at risk. All students — and faculty and staff — must be symptom-free and not have any known exposure. We recognized there was some risk but have worked very hard to ensure the risk was low for all that participated. We occasionally canceled trips in compliance with COVID-19 traceback and quarantine guidelines."
Crauer said there were some significant changes in procedures after the onset of the pandemic.
"Pre-COVID, students would meet with shelter leadership, tour facilities and eat lunch on site," Crauer said. "All of those activities were discontinued until recently. With our outreach vaccine and microchip clinics, the partner organization provided 'pet runners' who would interface with the client. This minimized any student-public contact and the potential for disease propagation in either direction."
Crauer said that the partner programs and animal shelters have worked together on developing special safety protocols.
"Just as our students, faculty and staff assess their health risk or situation each day, we ask our shelter partners to do the same," Crauer said. "They are instructed to report any illness or exposure before our departure to their facility. Shelter leadership, staff and volunteers have been very willing to participate."
Crauer said that initially, not all of the partner organizations were ready to restart their programs.
"Some organizations did not shut down at all while others discontinued services altogether and were much more conservative on reopening," Crauer said. "Just as we expected our shelter partners to respect our requirements for visits, we also had to accommodate those who were even more cautious than we were. That the process and communication were in place to properly navigate these outbreak situations shows that our system works."
The K-State Shelter Med team has even consulted with a number of other academic programs and animal welfare organizations to help them reboot and begin to get back to normal, Crauer said.
The shelter medicine program has reestablished connections to 14 active partner organizations through the pandemic and its surgical procedures surpassed 4,200 on the year, which averages approximately 40 procedures per student, per rotation. Among the communities the program regularly visits include Emporia, Junction City, Lawrence and Topeka.
In addition to the Mobile Surgery Unit, the shelter medicine program also recently acquired a community outreach vehicle called Wellness on Wheels, or WOW. It successfully completed its first trip on March 13 after more than two years of fundraising and production. WOW took part in a wellness clinic, in partnership with the Community Veterinary Outreach program, at the Metro Lutheran Ministry Mission in Kansas City, Missouri. During the visit, 25 patients owned by 18 different clients were served.
Now that pandemic restrictions have been lifted, Crauer hopes to get the shelter medicine program moving at full speed once again.
"It was so important to keep these outreach-based programs in place through the pandemic to continue to serve those in need and get our students valuable experience," Crauer said. "I’m very proud of the education we have been able to provide, the hands-on experience for our students performed as outreach service to those in need."