Adjusting to the “New Normal”: Life and Shelter Medicine in the time of COVID-19

Damian Barr quoteEach of us has been facing different hurdles and new adjustments in the weeks that COVID-19 has drastically changed our lives, both professionally and personally. In this post we share how our team here at MSMP at Cornell is adjusting to this “new normal,” what has changed for us at work, and thoughts on the changes for the future of shelter medicine and veterinary care.

Lena DeTar, DVM, DABVP, DACVPM (Assistant Clinical Professor):

With campus closed, I have been primarily working at the desk in my living room, a heating pad in my lap, dogs and cat sleeping on the chairs behind me, a prime view of the bird feeder and its busy collection of creatures in front. It is a welcome diversion from the scramble of getting all of my teaching materials for Introduction to Shelter Medicine, Forensics, and Advanced Shelter Medicine on line, monitoring discussion boards, proctoring exams, and leading live on-line zoom meetings for students. I was image of MSMP staff meeting via zoomtapped early on to be part of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians COVID-19 crisis response task force, which meant writing SOPs, attending a lot of industry webinars, and reading/editing a lot of guidance documents for shelters trying to navigate their individual responses. There are many more meetings- university, vet school, department, and other projects, all over zoom now- and my calendar is pretty full.

Although it feels like I only leave my house to walk the dogs, I did spend a couple sleepless nights on call for the small animal surgery service at the CUHA at the beginning of all of this, and I spent a few weeks providing direct care service at the SPCA. I like having a full kitchen at my disposal for lunch. I’ve also really enjoyed seeing local NY shelter people on our Friday calls- it is a highlight of my week. That, and the occasional Pileated Woodpecker.

Erin Henry, VMD, DACVPM (Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Instructor):

When I think about the last 8 weeks, my mind is boggled by how much has changed. Our team meets virtually, faculty never spending time in the same room together as a precautionary measure. All the students have gone home. I only see them in our online classes. We converted daily rounds at the shelter to a living electronic document and a weekly online meeting.

Being someone who thrives on in-person interaction, working from home more than 75% of the week has been daunting; but throughout this time, I keep reflecting on one of my favorite Mr. Rogers quotes, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'” Luckily for me, Look for the helpers quote imagewhat has remained the same is that this industry is full of helpers.  Shelter medicine programs are working around the clock to make sure shelters have the most up-to-date information; shelter veterinarians are helping their organizations adjust their protocols to maintain the safety of the animals, their staff, and the community; and animal shelters across the country put out the call for help and their communities responded, taking tens of thousands of shelter animals into their homes until they can be adopted. Helpers are EVERYWHERE in animal sheltering!

The last 8 weeks reveal this may be just the spark our industry needed to continue growing.  We are re-evaluating the role of an animal shelter in the community. Hundreds of organizations are strategizing the way shelters serve animals and the community. If these 8 weeks have been any indication of what we can achieve, I have no doubt that the future is bright for animal sheltering. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Wesley Cheung, DVM (2019 Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Intern):

In the age of COVID-19, we’ve all had to rapidly change how we live, work, and learn. Although we have admittedly been struggling to adjust to our new roles over the past few weeks, we have now undoubtedly found some stability in our “new normal”.

For me, the “new normal” was adjusting to update our medical checklists and animal rounds cases on a Google spreadsheet, working fewer hours with fewer support staff while abiding by strict social regulations, and keeping track of zoom meetings and projects throughout the week. I have also tried to stay productive in my spare time. My latest accomplishment: the crow pose.

As animal rescue organizations continue to adapt to their “new normal”, our shared experiences over the past few weeks have brought shelters closer together; yet the difference in the impact of COVID-19 on organizations has given rise to polarized opinions. Regardless, there are commonalities such as the value of telemedicine, intake diversion strategies, remote foster management, and reducing barriers to adoption.

There are still a lot of uncertainties ahead of us. We may revert to old habits, or we may have to continue to adjust and adapt. Maybe some of us are even re-imagining new futures based on what we’ve experienced and learned. Regardless, it’s important to remember that struggling to cope with these uncertainties is normal. It’s important to help others the best you can, while not forget to care for yourself.

Sarah Ericksen, DVM (2019 Janet L. Swanson Intern of Shelter Medicine):

I am a planner, the kind that makes a daily itinerary for a trip. As information about COVID-19 was coming out at breakneck speed, I would have been overwhelmed if it were not for the leadership of our program, the College of Veterinary Medicine community, and the Tompkins County SPCA. Clear and concise communication was provided in a timely manner. However, what made the biggest impact in alleviating my fear/stress/anxiety was that every guideline and/or recommendation prioritized the health and safety of personnel while providing high-level care to the animals and clients in our community. Knowing this, despite being an individual considered to be in the COVID-19  “high risk” category, I never once felt unsafe fulfilling my work responsibilities as a shelter medicine intern.

The “typical” sheltering model had to be modified to balance human health and safety while providing adequate care to animals in the shelter. To reduce the amount of time spent physically in the shelter and maximize social distancing, fewer animals had to be in the shelter. We quickly switched to a foster-based sheltering model. I believe this shift in how we think about managing a shelter population is here to stay.

Similar to the need for change on the macro level, change was needed on the micro level (i.e. my job) as well. The primary focus of my internship was clinical experience and mentorship. The level of mentoring I receive has not changed though the amount of time I spend in the shelter has. I was tasked with exploring shelter medicine in non-traditional ways via webinars, certificate programs, online courses, an increased participation in classes offered to veterinary students, and good old-fashioned textbooks. Having the time to engage in different activities has actually been refreshing. The MSMP faculty have made sure my time as an intern is being well-spent and still centered around being mentored. COVID-19 has disrupted “business as usual”, but from where I sit this is not necessarily a bad development. The silver lining to these trying times is that new and exciting ideas are emerging in the sheltering world and I believe the people and animals will be better for it.

Vicki Weber (Shelter Medicine LVT):

We live on our hill, off the road.  We socialize with the neighbors on the other hills and in the valley. It’s almost modern-day little house on the prairie, except central New York woods. Our biggest lifestyle change has been the inability to eat meals out. That is the one luxury we sorely miss, although we have found our favorite restaurants provide take out.

Work life changed dramatically. Normally, I commute an hour to work and 95% of my work time is spent assisting others at the shelter, along with conducting my own projects, preparing for surgical procedures, attending meetings, etc. The other 5% of my time was spent on campus. During the PAUSE, I spent most of my time at home. “Work-life balance” boundaries become murky when the office can be anywhere: the dining room table, the kitchen bar, a couch, or your bedroom. While there is a distinct difference between physical and mental work, and physical fatigue and mental fatigue, I would rather be physically worked and fatigued any day of the week!  I now fully understand how attachment to electronics can cause mental and physical illness at times.  Human nature wants to connect with other people. I never have imagined the distant connections I would make through all the weekly zoom meetings and learning webinars.  I have been able to put names with faces and organizations, learn and share ideas, and get a candid sneak peek into everyone’s homes and personalities.

Aside from my personal minor lifestyle changes, drastic work change, and the new ways we have all found to connect, I think my biggest takeaways from the COVID-19 global crisis and struggle are: that change, although painful, is only temporary as we develop a new “normal”; struggle and loss will test any person’s character; and people are good.

Sarah Nickerson (Shelter Medicine Program Coordinator):

My birthday week this year started the way it does pretty much every year. I went into the office on Monday for the program’s all-staff meeting, and campus events and classes went on normally. However, COVID-19 was continuing to escalate in NYC, and there were whispers and speculation about possible school closures and other shutdowns. By Friday, March 13th, the day before my NY on pausebirthday, the whispers had grown louder; I gathered essential items from my office to take home in case we moved to working remotely. That night, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced all NYS schools were to close, meaning my 6-year-old son and all other school children would remain home indefinitely. By the end of the following week, Cornell students were told to pack and prepare for the second half of their semester to be completed online and NYS was officially “on pause”.

As Program Coordinator for Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program at Cornell University, I primarily focus on the administrative, marketing and communications, and event planning aspects of the program. Though my work is more easily completed remotely than my veterinary and LVT teammates, it has not been an easy transition. Early on, I was thankful to be tasked with organizing weekly Friday Q&A sessions online for New York State animal shelter staff and Poster for Friday COVID Q&As with CUMSMPveterinarians. In these virtual group meetings, our program faculty and local shelter representatives share how organizations have shifted their daily operations and discuss strategies for the future. Most recently, these discussions have evolved into preparing for a world in which shelter medicine is re-imagined and re-structured.

I am one of the lucky ones – I have not gotten sick nor have I lost anyone I love to this virus. But I am looking forward to a point where I can be in the same room with my coworkers providing the life-saving services that are our mission. There is a scene in “Office Space”, a popular movie released in 1999, during which the main character is being confronted about his absence from the office. The human resources person says to him, “Looks like you’ve been missing a lot of work lately.” The main character replies sarcastically, “I wouldn’t say I’ve been ‘missing’ it.” Well, I can honestly say I have been missing the office and my co-workers, but I look forward to the innovations the shelter medicine community will build from this crisis.














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