Disclaimer: The information presented in this article reflects our understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic as of March 25, 2020.
On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, but the disease has been gaining notoriety since early January. The coronavirus, so-named for the crown-like spikes on its surface, continues to impact healthcare and economies around the world and optometry is no exception. The declaration has prompted many optometry schools and existing optometrists to create a plan of action to cope with the rapidly-changing situation. Pearson Testing Centers have even closed their doors to exam-takers until April 16, 2020, cancelling National Board exams for hundreds of optometry students around the United States and Canada.
The term pandemic is given to any disease that effects a significant amount of people over a wide geographic area. Since cases of COVID-19 have been recorded everywhere except Antarctica, it certainly qualifies.
The subset of viruses (known as coronavirus) have been around for decades. These viruses tend to exist throughout the animal population, but sometimes a mutation within the virus allows it to “jump” from animals to humans. Some additional examples of coronaviruses include SARS-CoV and MERS- CoV.
COVID-19 is a new version of coronavirus that can be transmitted among humans. Because COVID-19 is a new virus, scientists and healthcare workers around the world are rushing to understand and treat the outbreak. The latest, most up to date information can be found on the CDC website.
The Ocular Component: A small subset of reported cases showed that COVID-19 can cause conjunctivitis, otherwise known as “pink eye.” According to the Health Policy Institute (HPI), COVID-19 may present as viral conjunctivitis and eye care professionals have been encouraged to screen patients with conjunctivitis for fever and other COVID-19 symptoms. Corticosteroids should be avoided when treating COVID-19-induced conjunctivitis. It is also worth noting that COVID-19 can be transmitted when airborne droplets come in contact with mucous membranes, such as the conjunctiva.
The Discrimination Component: Unfortunately, the spread of disease has also prompted acts of discrimination against the Asian community. Dr Gilbert Gee recently spoke at a UCLA teleconference about the effects of discrimination against minorities, which have increased as the outbreak spreads.
What COVID-19 Might Mean for Optometry
Some optometry schools have been anticipating the possibility of COVID-19 reaching pandemic status for weeks now. Due to the rapidly-changing environment, it is recommended that students reach out to student representatives or a student affairs coordinator to find out how your program plans to keep students safe and on track.
The response among the optometric community has been one of caution and risk-mitigation. Many optometry school have canceled fourth-year clinic rotations for a minimum of two weeks and some have even canceled graduation ceremonies. Various events, including Vision Expo East in NYC and the COVD Annual Meeting in Toronto, have cancelled or postponed their meetings. While some optometrists are only seeing patients with emergent situations during this uncertain time, others are temporarily closing their door altogether.
Advocacy Amidst COVID-19
In an effort to prevent further spread of the virus, a relief package was passed by congress allowing physicians across the United States to get reimbursement from Medicare for “virtual check-ins” and other telehealth services which were previously restricted to more rural areas and in areas deemed to be in shortage of health professionals. The American Optometric Association (AOA) was vital in having optometrists recognized as one of the eligible providers on the sweeping 8.3-billion-dollar emergency aid package, which was signed into law on March 6, 2020.
The AOA also recently launched a resource page for optometrists that provides guidance on COVID-19, including the latest clinical recommendations and guidance on informed patient care.
No matter where you are in your optometry school training, dealing with COVID-19 and its impact will be stressful. Here are a few tips:
- Filter Your Information: The best sources of information come directly from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), medical professionals, and local authorities. The AOA has also set up a page dedicated to COVID-19 updates.
- Get Educated: The WHO has plenty of information on COVID19 including courses that are geared towards medical and public health professionals via Open WHO. Focus on the facts!!
- Talk to Your School: Find out which protocols you need to follow, especially if you are in seeing patients. If you’re uncertain about what to do, now is the time to ask.
- Stay Healthy: Follow basic safety guidelines, such as washing your hands, coughing or sneezing into your arm, and taking steps to maintain good health. Read more about staying healthy in optometry school.
- Stay Home When Sick: This can be difficult because most of us don’t want to miss important lectures or make up clinic. While we want to tough it out, it’s better for you and everyone else if you stay home, especially if you have a fever. For specific information regarding symptoms or seeking treatment of the virus, refer to the links above.
- Prepare (if you haven’t already): Stock up in case there’s a quarantine in your area. Some essentials include food, cleaning supplies, and over-the-counter medications in case you develop mild symptoms or happen to catch a cold. If you are using prescription medications, now is a great time to make sure you aren’t almost out. If you have pets, don’t forget their needs as well.
- Understand People are Panicking: It is okay to be afraid or nervous, but you shouldn’t panic. As a future healthcare professional, you channel those emotions into educating yourself and others on the facts. As optometry students, we need to stay informed for the sake of our health, our safety, and our patients. The WHO is also offering free courses about COVID-19.
- Give Yourself a Break: It is important for your mental health to de-stress: watch a movie, spend five minutes looking at cat videos, have that FaceTime date with your friend back home you’ve been putting off since January – anything that can be done from the comfort of your own home! This is also a good time to practice turning off your phone and notifications while you study.