As multiple COVID vaccines steam ahead toward FDA approval, optometrists in California also want the right to give shots to patients, citing the fact that most ODs already have the necessary training to do so.

Other medical professionals, including dentists, say their assistance will be needed to distribute the vaccines to millions of Americans, including the approximate 40 million CA residents.1 

Optometrists are well equipped to provide vaccines since the statute in California already authorizes certified optometrists to administer flu, shingles and pneumonia immunizations to adults in the state, says California Optometric Association President Jason Tu, OD.

“The immunization training course for optometrists is the exact same course that is required for pharmacists and includes hands-on training on all vaccines,” he adds. “There are optometrists who work at community clinics that have taken the pharmacist required course work but can’t administer vaccines because the statute prohibits it. All optometrists can be quickly trained and ready to help if we could just lift the arbitrary legal barriers that exist in California."

In addition to vaccinations, optometrists should also be allowed to test patients for COVID, Dr. Tu suggests.  “At some point, when more rapid viral tests are available, we will have the ability to test every patient before they enter the office. More testing by all health care providers will help slow and stop the spread of the virus. California law currently limits testing by optometrists to conditions of the eye.”

Scope Expansion Questions

The intent of California’s expanded scope of practice law is to make it easier and convenient for the general public to receive safe immunizations, says optometrist Brian Chou of San Diego.

“At the time this was passed, COVID-19 was not in the mental sphere of legislators or public health officials. It is, however, quite reasonable to expect that the skill and proficiency to administer coronavirus vaccination to be equivalent to administering vaccinations for the flu, shingles or pneumonia,” he says.

Dr. Chou explains this is an opportunity for smart public health officials to use existing infrastructure to provide a significant public service, such as facilitating herd immunity to end the pandemic. 

He also believes most citizens will recognize good reason to construe AB 443—the state’s expanded scope of practice bill that went into effect in January 2018—to permit appropriately trained and certified optometrists to vaccinate against coronavirus. 

“The entire vaccination effort will be an immense undertaking, so I believe it will be an ‘all hands on deck’ call to vaccinate the entire state’s population, especially considering there will be a booster and a second visit to achieve maximal efficacy. Battling COVID-19 has already spurred better and improved approaches on a variety of fronts, and I believe the traditional avenues of vaccination will also get updated,” Dr. Chou says.

Still, he expects the usual opponents of optometric scope expansion to reflexively catastrophize about ODs administering COVID-19 vaccination.

As a nationwide response to the pandemic and the need to prepare for a huge public health campaign to vaccinate Americans, government policy leaders are recommending that states evaluate and expand their health care teams with regard to the provision of vaccinations, according to the AOA. The Department of Health and Human Services recently released guidance specifically recommending that states “assess the provider types that can administer immunizations” and “consider whether there should be expansions of providers, including mass immunizers.”   

 Providing vaccination is part of scope of practice for doctors of optometry in California, the AOA points out.

 “As the nation’s focus pivots to the promise of a COVID-19 vaccine, doctors of optometry can serve as a critical resource and support to states as they develop immunization plans and protocols,” the AOA wrote in a statement. “The more than 46,000 doctors of optometry who deliver more than 80% of primary eye care in America are well positioned to increase the public’s access to immunizations.”

Additionally, the AOA and affiliates are working with state authorities to ensure doctors of optometry are fully recognized for their front-line, primary eye health care provider role and consequently included among the Phase 1a distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine nationwide.

Bluth, Rachel. Kaiser Health News/NBC News. When coronavirus vaccines are ready, dentists, optometrists may give shots. Nov. 30, 2020. Accessed Dec. 2, 2020.