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Max Fitz-Gerald, co-owner of the rescue group For the Love of Dogs, pleaded his case again before the Wilson County Board of Health on Tuesday to become an appointed certified rabies vaccine administrator.
“My request is simple,” Fitz-Gerald told the board. “I would like to be able to protect the people that come onto our property, to protect our animals so that we don’t have a problem that we have to deal with.”
Due to the amount of dogs the rescue organization and no-kill shelter takes in on a weekly basis, Fitz-Gerald told the board that he and his wife Della and volunteers are at a higher risk of being bitten by dogs who often don’t have proof of being vaccinated for rabies.
Fitz-Gerald said he would only be administering the rabies vaccination to dogs that come through FLOD. The group has housed just under 200 dogs at a time who were either abandoned, found or surrendered by owners who could no longer take care of them. The nonprofit currently has 119 dogs on its compound just outside the Wilson city limits.
Fitz-Gerald has asked three different health directors to appoint him to become a certified rabies vaccinator, all of whom denied the request. While the decision ultimately rests with the health director, who is responsible for overseeing rabies vaccine administration and recordkeeping, the health board usually discusses and asks questions as its members did Tuesday.
According to state law, vaccinations can be given by a licensed veterinarian, a registered veterinary technician who is under the supervision of a licensed veterinarian or a certified rabies vaccinator.
To become a certified rabies vaccinator, the local health director would have to appoint the person, who would also be required to receive at least four hours of training from the state public health veterinarian and receive a written certification from the state public health veterinarian that shows the person is able to administer the vaccines. The health director also has the option to terminate a vaccinator’s appointment at any time, according to North Carolina statutes.
Wilson County Health Director Teresa Ellen told board members Tuesday that the law’s intent is to provide public health protection in rural areas where there are not enough veterinarians to provide the service.
There are currently 13 licensed veterinarians in Wilson County who administer rabies vaccinations, and three additional licensed rabies vaccinators employed at the sheriff’s office Animal Enforcement Center, officials said.
“I’m ultimately responsible to supervise any certified rabies vaccinator that I authorize,” Ellen told the board, adding that she doesn’t have the staff to check up on independent vaccinators.
“The intent of the law is not to use my authority to simply make it more convenient,” she said. “I have to look at whether it’s in the best interest of the greater public health good. I’m not taking away from the fact that Max does provide a wonderful service, but those are things I have to take under consideration as I make a decision.”
Several animal advocates who support Fitz-Gerald and his request also attended Tuesday’s meeting. The board and the public discussed the issue openly.
Fitz-Gerald’s attorney, Will Farris the of Farris & Farris law firm, told Ellen that Fitz-Gerald would comply with all state requirements including recordkeeping. He said she could also check in with Fitz-Gerald on how many animals he’s vaccinated during a specific time period.
“There can always be stipulations,” Farris said. “At no point should we ever consider it’s not in the public good to stop someone from ever being bitten and contracting rabies.”
He said Fitz-Gerald is willing to go through all the state requirements to become certified in an effort to protect the public.
Farris said while it’s great that Wilson County has 13 licensed veterinarians who can administer the rabies vaccine, he wishes there were more.
“I wish we had 30,” he said. “I wish we had 50, especially with rabies vaccinators. That’s why I would consider doing this — for the common good of society.”
Farris said the administration of vaccines would still be controlled, because Fitz-Gerald has to abide by certain statutory procedures.
“It becomes a no-brainer to actually have somebody on site that can give the vaccine,” Farris said. “Why not allow him to vaccinate the animals if he’s willing to go through the class? I’m not sure how many people come here and ask for that. I don’t think it would be a floodgate of people who want to go to that class.”
‘ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT’
Dr. Maria Glennon, who is a veterinarian in Wilson and now vice chairwoman of the health board, explained that if a dog is vaccinated today and in any time in the next 28 days that dog bites someone else, the dog is still considered unvaccinated under state law.
“They go into 10 days of quarantine,” she said. “It does not change the quarantine time. It changes the paperwork. It changes what the health department has to do for rabies investigation and tracking, which still comes back to the health department and the quarantine aspect of it.”
Ellen also said there has to be a veterinarian to order the vaccine. She asked why the veterinarian For the Love of Dog uses can’t provide the rabies vaccine. Fitz-Gerald said the veterinarian owns two clinics and is busy. For the Love of Dogs has recently been transporting the animals to her clinic in Stantonsburg, he said.
“Any way you slice it, the immediacy is affected,” Della Fitz-Gerald added.
Ellen said she will look at Fitz-Gerald’s request and examine all the factors involved. She said she will render her decision within 10 business days.
“Is it going to hurt anything for Max to be able to do this?” said Wilson County resident Dewey Sheffield, who attended the meeting in support of Fitz-Gerald. “I just do not see any negative here. There’s nothing to lose on this situation.”
Ellen said she appreciated public comments and animal advocates’ participation at the meeting.
“I will definitely give it serious consideration,” she said.