'Stay four koalas apart': an animal hospital's response to coronavirus – in pictures

Just as in a human hospital, the staff at the University of Sydney’s veterinary teaching hospital begin their shifts with rounds. In these meetings they hand over crucial information about their patients and discuss the day ahead. Only now, as the hospital practises physical distancing, these rounds are taking place in a National Trust-awarded building designed a century ago.
Inside the historic animal-inspection building at Sydney University’s veterinary teaching hospital
  • To maintain social distancing, the morning handover for interns and doctors happens in the historic animal-inspection building at Sydney University’s veterinary teaching hospital.
“It was a place where the students in my day used to celebrate the end of their faculty dinners with a keg into the wee hours, so it’s got a lot sentimental value,” says the hospital’s CEO, Dr Mark Lawrie. “The acoustics are quite good and it gives the opportunity to the staff to socially distance whilst still communicating.”

That change in scenery is far from the only adjustment the hospital has made in the wake of Covid-19. The biggest change has been the “decision to exclude clients from coming in to the hospital building”.

Skye Welsh hands over her cavoodle, Jessie, to Dr Phan Mponda for surgery.
  • Skye Welsh hands over her cavoodle, Jessie, to Dr Phan Mponda for surgery.

Now, pet owners “swap leads at the door without actually making close contact”, or “if it’s a cat in a cage, they leave the cat inside the foyer on a red X and then the staff comes and wipes down the cage and the handles”.

From there, the hospital staff will examine the animal, while talking to the owner over the phone or FaceTime, much like a telehealth appointment. Most owners take the call while waiting outside in the parking lot. “The clients have been very understanding and sympathetic, more than we thought they would be,” says Lawrie.

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The hospital is making an exception for euthanasia cases, where owners may still come into the building, but “they are limited to one or two family members wearing PPE”.

Mark Lawrie, the veterinary teaching hospital’s chief executive, views an X-ray
  • Mark Lawrie, the veterinary teaching hospital’s chief executive, views an X-ray.

The teaching hospital has also shifted its students to online learning, and split its workforce into two teams, so that even if there were a case of Covid-19 within the hospital’s staff, operations could continue while exposed staff members were quarantined.

“Initially we reduced to emergency and urgent cases, so there’s a little bit of a shifting scale as to what you do and what you can see,” says Lawrie. He notes, however, that “over time, if you don’t do things like nail clips, then they become more urgent”.

A social distancing sign in the teaching hospital
  • A social distancing reminder in the teaching hospital.

The number of emergency cases they are seeing “seem to have increased”, he says. “It was pretty hard and stressful to change operations like that, but we got there.”

Now “we’re seeing lights at the end of the tunnel”. Lawrie believes their current cohort of students will be able to complete their training and make way for the next class. They are also hoping to be able to take on more cases soon. “We delayed elective surgeries just like in the human sphere, but are looking at ramping that back up again as things draw closer to normality.”

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