25 January 2022

As you know, all of Aotearoa New Zealand moved to the red setting of the COVID-19 Protection Framework on Sunday night in light of the emergence of omicron cases in the community.

The red setting has not changed substantially in response to the omicron strain and previous information and guidance about the traffic light framework still applies.

From Government’s announcement on Sunday and overseas experience, it seems likely that we will see a large increase in community spread of COVID-19, causing significant disruption for many people and businesses.

A reminder of the rules at red

The red setting is used to protect the health system and at-risk populations from an unsustainable number of hospitalisations. For veterinarians, the key points are:

  • Veterinary clinics and other businesses can remain open.
  • If a clinic decides to require My Vaccine Pass for visitors, close proximity services can (but don’t have to be) be provided (e.g. having clients in a small consult room)
  • Face coverings must be worn by visitors and staff in public areas
  • QR codes and alternative contact record systems must be available for visitors and used
  • Capacity must be limited based on 1m distancing requirements.

Preparing for closures and disruption

We recognise that the shortage of veterinary staff means that it is highly likely that some clinics may need to reduce services or stop operating while key staff members are isolating or recovering. While we have an expectation that those in clinical practice must have 24-7 emergency care arrangements in place, we have no intention of penalising veterinarians or clinics for circumstances beyond their control. We ask that you continue to do what you can to provide veterinary services during this time but also that you prioritise the health and safety of yourself and your team.

Preparation and contingency planning is the best bet to minimise the impact of this outbreak on your clinic and clients. See our previous advice on preparing for the possibility of exposure within a business. The advice also includes steps that we recommend taking in the event that closure becomes necessary. In essence, preparation is key and we strongly encourage open communication with clients and other local clinics and referral clinics so that there is a plan in the event your clinic has to close.

Other info:

Changes to the isolation rules

We’ve had a few questions about whether veterinarians and other staff who are identified as close contacts but are not showing signs of infection could be granted an exemption to continue working in-clinic under strict controls. We believe that it is extremely unlikely that the Government will consider any exemptions to the isolation rules, particularly given the increased transmissibility of Omicron.

This means that we all have to plan for the likelihood that some staff will be in isolation in the coming months and do our best to prepare for that. Provided they are able, people in isolation can continue working remotely. For veterinary clinics, this might include tasks like answering phone calls and triage, carrying out remote consultations and providing advice to colleagues.

A lot of public attention has been paid to the current isolation periods (14 days for COVID positive cases and 10 days for close contacts) and whether they could be shortened, as has been done in some other countries, in response to the omicron strain. We have no special power to influence the Government’s decision making on this topic but are aware that it has been raised and is likely being considered.

Use of Rapid Antigen Tests and respirators

We’re aware that currently clinics may be able to obtain rapid antigen tests (RATs) from pharmaceutical wholesalers. Whether your clinic wishes to purchase and use these, and how, is primarily a business decision. We expect that more information about their planned role in the national response to omicron may become available in the coming days.

There is increasing interest in people who are not human healthcare workers using respirators (e.g. N95s or P2s) instead of surgical and fabric masks and the Ministry of Health is reviewing their advice on masks. A respirator is a tight fitting mask that creates a facial seal and, when used properly, can provide two-way protection. If you and your team choose to use respirators, we suggest ensuring everyone is competent in donning, seal-checking and doffing them. Guidance on this is now plentiful, see, for example, the CDC’s guidance.

We’ll be in touch

We’ll update the profession as more information becomes available and the situation evolves although we hope this won’t need to be as frequent as with previous outbreaks.

In the meantime, please look after yourself and contact us if you have questions or need help.