The Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission has reversed a deputy commissioner’s decision and forced an animal clinic to pay for a former employee’s rabies shots, even though she was never diagnosed with the disease.
On May 2, 2011, Logan Gossett was working as a veterinary assistant for Assisi Animal Clinics of Virginia in Roanoke and held down a cat with severe wounds on its back legs so a veterinarian could draw blood. Ms. Gossett, who had unrelated scratches and open wounds on her hands, said she was exposed to the saliva of the cat. She received a series of shots starting two days later for two weeks, after it was determined the cat had rabies. In a 1998 study in Massachusetts, the total estimated charge for a complete rabies treatment was $2,376. A typical vaccination series can cost more than $7,000, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.
Dr. Michelle Spangler, a veterinarian at the clinic, submitted a letter on Ms. Gossett’s behalf saying she had spoken to a doctor in the emergency room at Roanoke Memorial Hospital who determined that Ms. Gossett needed post-exposure rabies treatment.
“If the cat licks its wounds and within a quick period of time someone with an open wound touched the cat’s wound, it is possible that the virus can be transmitted,” Dr. Spangler wrote. “Because of the severity of rabies infection where the result is death 99.9% of the time, even unlikely but possible exposures should be treated.”
A deputy commissioner, however, concluded in January that the mere possibility of Ms. Gossett’s contracting the disease was not enough to approve her claim.
“The cat she was treating neither scratched nor bit her, no physician diagnosed her as having rabies, and it is clear from Dr. Spangler’s report that an adverse outcome was merely a possibility rather than a certainty,” the ruling said.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, touching or handling a potentially rabid animal is not an “exposure” to rabies unless wet saliva or central nervous system material from the animal entered a fresh, open wound or had contact with a mucous membrane.
But in an opinion released Monday, Commission Chairman William L. Dudley, Commissioner Roger L. Williams, and Chief Deputy Commissioner James J. Szablewicz reversed the ruling.
They cited a 2002 case where a veterinary assistant treated a feral cat by placing her scratched hands into the feline’s mouth. Specialists later recommended that the assistant receive treatment after it was discovered the cat had rabies. The state Court of Appeals found that since the scratches had been exposed to the cat’s saliva, there was an actual exposure to the virus and, therefore, a compensable injury.
“In finding that she was entitled to recover for the cost of the injections, the Court noted that such injections were not preventative medicine but, instead, were treatment for exposure to the rabies virus,” they wrote.
A spokesman for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, Angels of Assisi’s insurer, said the company has accepted the ruling issued Friday.
There have been 206 confirmed cases of animal rabies in Virginia through May 19 of this year, most of which have been raccoons. Seven involved cats. There were 618 cases last year, including 30 cats.
In 2008, the most recent year for which data was available, 994 people in the state received rabies post-exposure treatment after being exposed to the disease out of 15,758 people who were reported to local health departments with animal bites.