Optometrists Push to Help Administer, Receive COVID-19 Vaccine

Jared Kaltwasser

Optometrists say their wide distribution and medical expertise make them ideal candidates to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. As healthcare workers they also want to be prioritized to receive the vaccine.

As the United States begins what is expected to be the largest mass-vaccination campaign in the country’s history, American optometrists say they are well positioned to play an important role in the effort.

Earlier this month, the American Optometric Association sent a letter HHS Secretary Alex Azar urging him not to set federal restrictions on which types of providers can administer the COVID-19 vaccines. Instead, they said, HHS should continue to encourage states to think broadly about who should be included in vaccine administration plans.

William T. Reynolds, O.D., the association’s president, noted in the letter that optometrists have a wide geographical footprint and are already given the authority to administer vaccines in many states.

“Overall more than 90% of the U.S. Medicare beneficiary population lives within 15 minutes of a doctor of optometry,” Reynolds said. “Doctors of optometry in some states are eligible by their scope of practice to provide vaccinations. Additionally, doctors of optometry in 19 states are already authorized to administer injections.”

In 22 additional states, Reynolds said, doctors of optometry are authorized to provide anaphylaxis through injection.

There are more than 46,000 optometrists in the United States, according to AOA.

However, administrative and other hurdles remain even in states where regulations allow optometrists to administer the vaccine. For instance, although California in passed a law allowing optometrists to administer flu, shingles, and pneumonia vaccines, the state has been slow to process some vaccination administration applications submitted by providers.

In a story on AOA’s website, California optometrist Frank Giordana, O.D., noted that he took and passed a 20-hour vaccination administration course two years ago. The state has yet to process his application, he said.

Similarly, Ohio passed legislation letting optometrists and other types of medical professionals administer drugs or vaccines in declared emergencies five year, even if such treatment is normally outside of their scopes of practice. The AOA said it is currently “in the process of reminding state health officials” of this provision, in hopes that they will promote optometrist administration of vaccines as part of their rollouts.

The push for a role in vaccine distribution also comes at a time of upheaval in the optometry industry. At the start of the pandemic, some chains and independent practices chose to shut down their clinics or were forced to stop routine care due to local regulations. Even when clinics were open, some patients chose to forego routine exams out of fear of infection.

In its statement, AOA noted that an estimated 60% of patients they treated in the early stages of the pandemic would otherwise have sought care at an emergency department or urgent care clinic. That’s why the association is urging HHS and the CDC to consider optometrists to be front-line healthcare workers. In addition to asking for a role in vaccine administration, the association is asking state and federal public health agencies to prioritize optometrists as they make decisions about who should get the vaccine first.

“While our doctors and their staff will continue to do all they can to address eye and vision care needs in our communities, we believe that ensuring health care workers, including doctors of optometry and their staff, are prioritized for vaccinations in phase 1a is critical to the overall health of our country,” Reynolds wrote.

In its December 3 guidance for states, the CDC says “healthcare personnel” and residents of long-term care facilities should be prioritized in phase 1a. The guidelines do not specifically mention optometrists, but the website’s definition of healthcare personnel is broad, including everyone from doctors and nurses to pharmacists and nonmedical hospital staff.