Our Opinion: No good reason to reject request for rabies vaccinator

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Wilson County Health Director Teresa Ellen has a choice to make. Attorney Will Farris calls it a “no-brainer.”

Farris’ client, For the Love of Dogs owner Max Fitz-Gerald, has asked to be appointed as a certified rabies vaccinator. The health director’s approval would allow Fitz-Gerald to vaccinate dogs at his animal rescue group’s no-kill shelter on Quaker Road instead of having to drive them to veterinary clinics for the vital but perfunctory procedure.

Fitz-Gerald made a formal request to the Wilson County Board of Health last week. He’s asked two previous health directors for permission to become a vaccinator and has yet to receive the green light.

Under North Carolina law, only licensed veterinarians, registered veterinary technicians under their supervision and certified rabies vaccinators may inoculate pets and livestock against the rabies virus. County health directors can appoint vaccinators, who receive state training and must provide vaccination records to their county health departments.

North Carolina had roughly 350 vaccinators in 2013, according to the state Division of Public Health website, and Wilson County currently has three, all of whom are employed at the Wilson County Sheriff’s Office Animal Enforcement Center.

Ellen said she’d give Fitz-Gerald’s request “serious consideration,” but questioned the need for him to personally administer vaccines and explained that she’s responsible for supervising all vaccinators she appoints.

“The intent of the law is not to use my authority to simply make it more convenient,” Ellen said during the meeting. “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.”

Fitz-Gerald says he and wife Della would be safer if he could vaccinate new rescues at his private shelter instead of hauling the dogs off-site, as someone could be bitten before the vaccine has been administered. Health board Vice Chairwoman Dr. Maria Glennon, a veterinarian, explained that dogs are still considered unvaccinated for purposes of mandatory quarantine if they bite someone within 28 days of receiving the rabies vaccine.

Farris said his client is willing to abide by all county rules and provide Ellen with timely paperwork.

“There can always be stipulations,” he 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.”

We don’t see any good reason why someone like Fitz-Gerald — a true animal lover who’s devoted decades and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the cause of rescuing stray dogs — shouldn’t be able to administer a simple shot in order to provide his volunteers and prospective adoptees some peace of mind.

Perhaps in the past, Fitz-Gerald’s involvement in Wilson County politics as a tireless advocate for additional animal resources have ruffled feathers and resulted in calculated, punitive denials. We’d expect such considerations wouldn’t be a factor for Ellen, who enjoys a reputation for fairness.

Should Fitz-Gerald be turned down again, it will be time to leapfrog the county and lobby for a change in North Carolina law to expand the certified vaccinator program under a state office. As Farris correctly notes, making the rabies vaccine more widely available is in the interest of public health.

As a matter of public policy, we object to laws that limit competition and restrict the provision of basic consumer services to high-level professionals. Judges increasingly agree, as the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 upheld a Fourth Circuit ruling that barred state boards of dentistry from cracking down on non-dentists who offered cosmetic tooth-whitening.

Just as a consumer-grade teeth-bleaching treatment needn’t require a dental school diploma to administer, giving a simple rabies shot doesn’t constitute the practice of veterinary medicine. With courts and lawmakers growing weary of anticompetitive red tape, maybe North Carolina could use some rabies vaccination reform.

In Fitz-Gerald’s case, that question should be strictly academic, as he ought to receive approval from Wilson County’s health director to join the existing certified vaccinator program.

“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?”

We agree, and we hope Health Director Teresa Ellen will do the right thing.