Illinois veterinarians volunteer to help fight coronavirus, provide equipment like ventilators

CHICAGO (WLS) -- As hospitals are strapped for people and supplies, the ABC7 I-Team has learned that veterinarians are being recruited as medical help to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

On normal days they take care of family pets, and animals in zoos and on farms. But these are abnormal days, so hundreds of veterinarians in Illinois have joined a statewide list of doctors who could soon help save human lives.

"We are trained as medical professionals and we triage patients every day, they can't exactly tell us what's wrong," said Elaine Holmes, veterinary surgeon with MedVet Chicago. "But we're very happy to stand alongside our human health allies and be directed to wherever we need to be."

A letter has gone out from the University of Illinois' new COVID-19 Support Network of Illinois Veterinarians, and several hundred vets and clinicians have signed on.

"Just anticipating, you know, if the hospital system becomes overwhelmed, what additional resources do we have at our fingertips? If we're imaging worst case scenario, and just need to plan for that," said Stephanie Keating, veterinarian at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine.

As the worst case scenario plays out, across the country, vet schools, animal hospitals and even zoos are offering up medical equipment, including ventilators.

"Our ventilator, for instance, is a human ventilator; our high-flow oxygen is for humans; our operating rooms are human-standard operating rooms," Homes said. "So, the vast majority of the pieces of technology that we use actually initially were made for the human healthcare side."

Vet ventilators won't come close to filling all the needs of infected people, but even one extra machine could save a human life.

"Most of those machines, or a lot of those machines, often are human ventilators that have been just taken out of circulation and refurbished for veterinary use," said Dr. Sunit Singla, critical care pulmonologist at UI Health. "So they may be exactly the same as the human ventilators that we have in a hospital, or they might be older models that could certainly be used."

Vets said they won't walk into hospitals and replace human doctors, but might provide technical help while supervised by MDs.

State officials responded to the help from veterinarians, saying in a statement, "Veterinarians are one of the occupations listed in Illinois Helps for which people can register. Illinois Helps is prioritizing some of the occupations in the system to try to get IDFPR licensing and background checks completed, and this is one of them. That said, they have dozens of priority occupations and tens of thousands of applications to work through at this time. They are currently in the process of going through those applications.

Veterinarians who are interested in volunteering can click here.

Any offers for donations of PPE, from veterinarians or other facilities, are being asked to contact ppe.donations@illinois.gov.
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