Wisconsin Vet Says Officials Forced Shut Down After Employee Tested Positive For Covid. Health Department Tells A Different Story.
In America’s heartland, a new and unlikely participant has joined the debates that have defined so much of the COVID-19 pandemic: Wisconsin veterinarian and practice owner Kristie Ponce of Wisconsin Rapids, where the local economy is being ravaged by the pandemic. Dr. Ponce and her practice started attracting media attention earlier in July when, according to Ponce, she and her staff were ordered by local health department authorities to quarantine at home after one employee tested positive for COVID-19.
Ponce, who owns the Animal Medical and Surgical Clinic, has taken to the practice’s Facebook page, encouraging clients, friends, and colleagues who support her clinic to contact local and state officials to demand that veterinarians in Wisconsin be deemed ‘essential.’
“Please let them know why YOU consider veterinary services to be essential!”
“Ya’all have been asking how you can help,” Ponce posted earlier this week to the practice’s Facebook page. “Please let them know why YOU consider veterinary services to be essential! The CDC does, but apparently Wisconsin does NOT,” Dr. Ponce added, referring to a CDC guideline for veterinarians and veterinary staff, which she has pinned to the top of the practice page.
In guidance issued by the CDC for veterinary workers, the CDC advised: “Critical workers, like veterinarians and their staff, can be permitted to continue to work following a potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the workplace,” the CDC guidance says. That guidance, however, also notes states and localities may have their own protocols. Moreover, the CDC guidance notes that exposed work environments need “additional precautions” which a health department could argue Ponce’s business did not take.
“Please send emails to us to show your support for Dr. Ponce…”
“Please send emails to us to show your support for Dr. Ponce and her crew,” Scott Krug, a state legislator, wrote on the clinic’s Facebook page. “If the experts are to be believed on all else then they should be here as well. Vets and vet care are essential,” he added.
“This isn’t about essential or non-essential.”
But Nancy Eggleston, communicable disease supervisor for the Wood County, Wisconsin Health Department, says that ‘essential’ versus ‘non-essential’ is not the issue. The state is no longer under its lockdown order, she explained in an email to TCR. “This isn’t about essential or non-essential. When the [lockdown order] was in place, there were ‘essential’ businesses that could operate and ‘non-essential’ that couldn’t. “The order is gone,” Eggleston added. “So we no longer have any essential or non-essential businesses.”
More to the point, no healthcare regulation would allow a business, however essential, to remain open if all of its workers were exposed to the virus, nor would it allow workers who would otherwise be deemed essential to work in public environments while they are carrying the disease or are potentially exposed to it.
“We did not shut the clinic down. We did not require them to close….They chose to close because all staff were exposed.”
The central point of dispute appears to be whether the Health Department ordered Ponce to shut down her practice. The Health Department’s Eggleston told The Canine Review in a detailed email that Ponce and her practice were never ordered to shut down by her office. “We did not shut the clinic down,” Ms. Eggleston asserted. “We did not require them to close.” Later in the email, Eggleston added, “When a business operates in such a way that all staff are exposed, then they end up having no choice but to close because they have nobody left to work,” she wrote. “They chose to close because all staff were exposed.”
Ponce insists that the practice was “closed” and that the reason has to do with veterinary practices not being deemed “essential” by the state or county.
In another post, Ponce declared, “Today alone with the help of staff working from home our CLOSED, NON-ESSENTIAL BUSINESS fielded sixty phone calls, filled prescriptions for twenty-six pet owners, and I examined/treated nine patients. Feel free to let the Wood and Portage County health departments know how you feel about that, especially if you were one that we were NOT able to help where normally we would have.”
“This is absolutely unacceptable,” William Acker wrote in response to Dr. Ponce’s post. “You can thank the democratic party for this outrageous overreaction to this and politicized attention.”
“Why do you have to close but the casino doesn’t??” Pamela Glynn commented, to which Ponce replied, “Or Papa Murphys [pizza parlor], which reportedly had two employees test positive,” referring to eating establishments that were allowed to re-open.
“There has been a lot of misinformation about this situation,” Eggleston wrote in email to TCR. “We tried really hard to work with them from the very beginning and got nothing but pushback. We tried to argue on their behalf to the state health department. Our health department staff are a bunch of caring individuals who have been working double time since March. We do it because we care.”
When The Canine Review asked Ponce to corroborate her account that she was ordered to close with any kind of documentation such as email exchanges, Ponce told TCR that she could not share her email exchanges with the Health Department with us because ‘they were marked confidential’ and because an attorney had advised her not to.
Eggleston, however, did share the Health Department’s relevant email to Ponce with The Canine Review. The email said that the clinic would only have to close if it could not be staffed with people who were not in danger of infecting others with the virus because they themselves had tested positive or had been exposed to it.
Ponce would only paraphrase small portions of an email that she says she had gotten from another health department official, Sue Kunferman. But even that paraphrase suggested that Ponce would not have had to close the clinic if she could have staffed it with people who were clear of the virus. That email, Ponce told TCR, “clearly states,” that they “needed to be assured by me that the clinic was either closed or that all employees exposed to either positive case were quarantined at home, and if I did not comply, Wis. Stat. s. 252.25 provides that a court may impose a penalty of up to $500 and 30 days in jail.”
“How exactly do you send EVERY EMPLOYEE into quarantine for 14 days and not realize that you are shutting a business down?” Ponce posted to her practice’s Facebook page.
“This situation has been very difficult for all of us,” Eggleston explained. “There has been a lot of misinformation about this situation. We tried really hard to work with them from the very beginning and got nothing but pushback. We tried to argue on their behalf to the state health department. Our health department staff are a bunch of caring individuals who have been working double time since March. We do it because we care.”
“If they had staff who were not exposed and in quarantine, they never would have had to close.”
“I hope that you can try to understand that there is another side to what occurred,” she added. “And we’re doing our best. If they had staff who were not exposed and in quarantine, they never would have had to close.”
Ponce and her practice were expected to reopen today.