Did veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and other members of the animal care industry feel prepared to provide essential services in the midst of a pandemic?
A study published in an issue of the journal Health Security offers the first look at individual perceptions of this often-overlooked segment of the medical workforce during a large-scale public health crisis.
“For veterinarians and animal care workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was really about showing up, despite the risks to themselves and the crazy workload,” said Dr. Meghan Davis, one of the study authors and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Psychosocial, Organizational, and Environmental Total Worker Health Center in Mental Health.
The center was established in the fall of 2021 with funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health to focus on work-related mental health issues and solutions. The center will focus on health care workers and veterinarians, front-line and essential workers, and workers spanning the food system, according to a Johns Hopkins press release.
The POE Center is one of four new hubs funded by NIOSH that focus on research and practice related to worker health. The first-year award to Johns Hopkins is $1.4 million. The total award, spanning five years, is expected to be nearly $7 million.
While there is no shortage of research measuring disaster preparedness among first responders and human health care providers, the same cannot be said for animal care workers.
“We wanted our study to parallel with the veterinary animal care workforce what has been done many times with the human health care and public health responses to the pandemic and disasters,” Dr. Davis said.
dr Davis and her team surveyed more than 1,500 animal care workers nationwide between July and October 2020 about perceived risks and roles during the coronavirus pandemic. The survey sample included veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and veterinary hospital managers, as well as animal shelter and animal control employees, wildlife facility workers, and others.
Researchers applied the “ready, willing, and able” model commonly used to assess workforce preparedness. as dr Davis explained, “ready” measures a group’s training, “willing” their desire to respond, and “able” their skills and access to resources.
What the data show are respondents in leadership positions and age 40 or older scored higher in all three areas than younger respondents not in leadership. Moreover, being in a position of leadership and age had the strongest associations with lower perceived risk from the pandemic and improved job efficacy and confidence.
Most respondents considered co-workers as the most likely source of SARS-CoV-2 exposure, followed by clients or visitors and then the general public. Most respondents also cited mental health issues as a secondary consequence from the pandemic. The POE Center has funded a follow-up study focused on veterinarian mental health that will launch early this year.
A majority of respondents reported having no barriers to work during the pandemic. For those who did personal concern for family or a dependent topped the list, followed by physical or mental health barriers. The most common professional concern cited was a lack of management support.
dr Davis hopes the findings will be used to target intervention and training efforts to support the more vulnerable members of the animal care workforce.
“The take-home message is response preparedness in this sector can be improved by targeting younger workers not in leadership roles in support programs that center on improving job efficacy and confidence in safety protocols,” she said.
“Managers can support their teams by taking steps to improve and communicate safety measures for SARS-CoV-2 and to address the widespread concerns for mental health in the profession that our participants reported,” Dr. Davis added.