The COVID-19 vaccination efforts are ramping up across the country, and with additional doses becoming available and more eligible US citizens showing interest in receiving the shot, eight states recently expanded their list of health care vaccinators to include optometrists. To date, these states include California, Colorado, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia.1

Optometrists will also be among the health professionals who can qualify to administer vaccinations under a federal push to expand access announced last night by President Biden in a televised address. The department of Health and Human Services will soon launch a website that will allow optometrists and other clinicians to sign up for the new responsibility.

ODs Take the Frontline in CA

Optometrist Mark Nakano, associate dean for clinics at Southern California College of Optometry, will take his place as one of the first ODs to administer the COVID-19 vaccine in California this week.

California ODs saw their immunization scope of practice rights expanded in 2019, and Dr. Nakano already had his CPR and life saving credentials in place so he took the required online course that educates health care providers on COVID-19 vaccine administration and safe storage requirements.

“I think any time we can show the medical community that we are primary care health care providers is important,” Dr. Nakano says. “I believe the days of optometrists being synonymous with ‘eyeglasses and contact lenses’ are over. We have to tell the medical community that we are health care providers like any other doctor out there.”

Dr. Nakano, who is also the co-chair of the legislative committee for the California Optometric Association, answered the call for vaccinators in order to lend his expertise and be part of the solution, he says.

“Optometry has been fighting and pushing to expand their scope and expand our integration into health care, and to me, this was an easy entry point. I want us to be taken seriously. We want to do immunizations—so let’s do immunizations,” he says.

Dr. Nakano also wanted to set an example for his students and encourage other ODs to follow suit.

“We have 400 students attending optometry school here, and I want them to think, ‘This old guy is getting out there and vaccinating people, why don’t others get out there and do it, too?’”

ODs’ Vaccine Rate Higher than the General Public’s

As the vaccine push continues across the country, eye care providers aren’t just administering the shot; they’re also receiving it. And they appear to be getting the COVID-19 vaccine at a much higher rate than the general public, according to the latest results from the Vision Council’s Eyecare Provider Insights Survey.2 The latest poll, which was initially launched in March 2020, found 70% of providers reported being fully or partially vaccinated by the last week of February.2

As he gears up to be part of his first COVID-19 vaccination effort this week at Soka University in Orange County, Dr. Nakano recalls the initial pushback he encountered when he first tried to volunteer.

“I got a lot of rejection initially, because I’m pretty sure I’m the first OD to put my name out there with all the required certifications, but I kept getting pushback.”

When Dr. Nakano first tried to sign up to volunteer, he kept hitting roadblocks presented by county officials who said he didn’t have the correct certification. When he presented his documentation again, he was still rejected.

After several emails and a phone call, Dr. Nakano was finally accepted as a volunteer.

“It took a lot of perseverance,” he says.

Dr. Nakano believes ODs could one day administer the vaccine in their practices instead of in a volunteer capacity, especially with the recent FDA approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which doesn’t require as stringent freezing requirements as the Moderna and Pfizer options, which must be stored in sub-zero temperatures. Dr. Nakano says a busy practice could conceivably offer vaccines if they scheduled correctly, since the shelf life of a vial is only six hours. “So unless you use the entire vial within six hours, you’ve wasted a lot of vaccine.”

Dr. Nakano says he’s excited to be part of the vaccination effort.

“People need this vaccine. If I can help and be part of the solution, just like other optometrists across the nation and across the world, we can spread our knowledge and our capabilities. I think that speaks volumes to the profession and moves us forward.”

New Jersey ODs Join the Effort

On the other side of the country, the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs recently issued an administrative order that allows optometrists to participate in administering COVID-19 injections at point of dispensing sites, which are currently set up across the state.

The pandemic is an unprecedented public health issue that requires an all-out effort to get people vaccinated, but also requires enough vaccinators to administer the shot, says optometrist Michael Veliky, center director of Omni Eye Services in Rochelle Park, NJ, and legislative chair of the New Jersey Society of Optometric Physicians (NJSOP).

The NJSOP is also advocating for a lasting piece of legislation currently moving its way through the state senate that would give optometrists immunization authority, including for influenza.

“We all need to be better prepared from a public health perspective for global issues like this,” Dr. Veliky says. “We need to be more proactive moving forward.”

He adds, “We are part of the health care team, and we’re ready to be helpful to the state in this current public health emergency. We want to be sure that we are included and involved and ready to help with any future issues with public health measures that arise. Optometrists have the training, the experience and the qualifications to be part of the solution.”

Virginia ODs at the Forefront

In Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam signed emergency legislation, S.B. 1445 and H.B. 2333, in late February that permits any qualified and available health care provider in the state to volunteer as a COVID-19 vaccine administrator.1 It also allows doctors of optometry to volunteer at vaccination events statewide, provided they register with the health department and medical reserve corps, as well as complete provider education training.1

During the early stages of Virginia’s vaccination effort, many reports showed that the commonwealth was quickly falling behind national vaccination efforts, and in response, Virginia legislators urged this passage of emergency legislation to increase the number of providers who are eligible to administer the COVID-19 vaccine, says Virginia Optometric Association Executive Director Bo Keeney.

“We were excited to see that Virginia's optometrists were called upon to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic,” he says.

This further cements the role of Virginia's optometrists as frontline medical health care providers, he adds.

“Through the years, the Virginia Optometric Association has advocated for optometrists to advance their scope of practice to better reflect their education and training. The inclusion of optometrist in the vaccination effort is a wonderful acknowledgement of how far optometry has come in our commonwealth,” Mr. Keeney says.

ODs Roll Up Their Sleeves in Other States

In South Carolina, a joint resolution signed into law by Governor Henry McMaster in late February expanded COVID-19 vaccine administration authority to doctors of optometry participating at a vaccination site, conditioned on completion of several training programs.1 These programs include a general overview and safety and vaccine-specific information available through the CDC.1

Colorado Governor Jared Polis also signed an executive order in recent weeks to temporarily expand the state’s COVID-19 vaccinator force to include optometry.1 Reportedly, volunteer vaccinators are encouraged to sign up on Colorado's Volunteer Mobilizer site.1

More to Come

It’s likely that the success of the above efforts will spur other state optometric associations and their members to lobby for similar capabilities in the coming months, as will the new federal effort to enlist optometrists. Further afield lies the in-office shot administration efforts Dr. Nakano envisions. But with annual COVID vaccinations a possible scenario for reacting to variant strains, in time optometry may be pressed into service to make their practices a vital part of the public health infrastructure.

1. Eight states authorize doctors of optometry to give COVID-19 vaccinations: the latest. American Optometric Association. March 4, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2021.

2. The Vision Council releases results of February 2021 Eyecare Provider Insights Survey. Vision Monday. March 11, 2021. Accessed March 11, 2021.