Arkansas veterinarians have pitched in to help healthcare workers on the COVID-19 frontlines, an effort that began with a donation from some future veterinarians.


In March, the Briarwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Little Rock had more than three dozen cases of COVID-19.


“Most people don’t realize that nursing homes don’t have access to the personal protective equipment supply chain like hospitals do, because they usually don’t need it,” said Heidi Ward, extension veterinarian for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.


Among her extension roles, Ward works with the Arkansas 4-H program, leading the Arkansas 4-H Veterinary Science Program that fosters youth who want a career in veterinary medicine. The program includes hands-on work with animals.


“We just happened to have 30 isolation gowns and 60 masks for them to have,” she said.


Seeing the situation at Briarwood, Ward called to offer the program’s equipment. The center told her to come on down.


The nurse who took in the equipment was shocked by what she saw.


“I didn’t know it was PPE. We thought it was going to be homemade masks,” the nurse told Ward. “You don’t understand how much we have been needing these N95 masks.”


Starting something


A photo of the donated PPE was posted on the Arkansas Veterinary Medical Association Facebook page. One thing led to another.


Because of the post, the Veterinary Medical Association and the Veterinary Medical Examining Board called Ward and asked her to help create a survey to collect “PPE from veterinary clinics across the state to get it to the right people.”


Working with the Arkansas Veterinary Medical Association, the Arkansas Department of Agriculture, the Arkansas Department of Health and the Game and Fish Commission, a survey was created, and an online link emailed to all active veterinarians in the state asking what PPE they might have to donate and what diagnostic and biosafety expertise they might have.


“We had 188 veterinary hospitals answer the call and say they were able to donate. In some cases, it was maybe a box of gloves or some gowns, but we did have one veterinarian who offered a human-grade ventilator,” Ward said. “It may not seem like much, but that one ventilator could be keeping one person from dying.”


Because the results of the survey went directly to the Arkansas Department of Health, the total quantities aren’t known.


“Not only did the survey show that veterinarians around the state were willing to help where they could, but it also showed what can be accomplished when several state entities come together with a common goal,” said Cara Tharp, director of the Veterinary Medical Examining Board. “Through good communication and the willingness to work together, we were able to reach out to the veterinary community and collect important information.”


Ward said it was a great collaboration.


“It started some other conversations on how the veterinary community can, aside from donations, help on the front lines,” she said.


Ward is among the veterinarians on standby to help with COVID-19 tests due to her experience with reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction, known as RT-PCR, a technique researchers use to measure RNA samples. This is among the methods used to detect the COVID-19 virus.


To learn more about animal health, contact a local county extension agent, visit www.uaex.edu or on Twitter at @UAEX_edu.


The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.


— Mary Hightower is Chief Communications Officer at the U of A System Division of Agriculture.