The government’s stipulation that anyone providing a health service in close contact with the public be fully vaccinated is being welcomed by eyecare professionals as another step to control the virus, protect colleagues, their families and the wider community, and return to some semblance of business normality.
“Overall, the New Zealand Association of Optometrists (NZAO) is supportive of the requirement,” said Rochelle van Eysden, Christchurch-based practice owner and president of the NZAO. “We acknowledge that making the vaccination mandatory will be causing significant concern and stress to some of our members and their staff, however, we feel that this decision is made to protect the public and is not taken lightly.”
The government’s amendment to the existing Covid-19 Public Health Response Order was announced on 11 October, stipulating that all roles undertaken by those “in frequent contact, face-to-face contact, or in close proximity to healthcare workers providing a health service” and “work where a health service is being provided” should be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 by 1 December 2021 and receive their first dose by 30 October.
Wellington-based practice owner and Optometrists and Dispensing Opticians Board (ODOB) chair Jayesh Chouhan said, “The board is supportive of this requirement as it helps to protect the health and safety of the public as well as providing a mechanism that enables safe practice for practitioners. Vaccination remains our strongest and most effective tool to protect against infection and disease.” As a practice owner, Chouhan also said he welcomed the news. “Anything I can do to provide a safe environment for my staff and patients can only be a good thing. It will give confidence and remove uncertainty for my patients knowing that my practice has reduced Covid-19 risk.”
Any NZAO member who has concerns can seek advice from the NZAO on the potential ramifications of not being vaccinated, said van Eysden. “Members may also wish to consider that their vaccination status might also affect service provision rules for Enable NZ, DHB or MSD and other government contracts. Other than where extenuating medical circumstances exist, our advice to members is to get vaccinated if you have not done so already.” Speaking as an individual practice owner, van Eysden also said she personally welcomed mandatory vaccination. “It takes the onus off me as an employer to require my staff to be vaccinated. I would hate for a Covid-19 cluster to originate from my practice and, given the high proportion of vulnerable patients I see each week, this gives a layer of protection for all of us.”
The Association of Dispensing Opticians of New Zealand (ADONZ) president Vineet Chauhan said it was positive step for the protection of members, their colleagues, their families and customers. “The association strongly supports this recommendation and urges any DO members yet to be vaccinated to meet the timeline set for health workers.”
Auckland-based optometrist and former practice owner Jeremy Wong also welcomed the news. “I think it’s essential that all staff in an optometry practice be fully vaccinated as we are primary healthcare practitioners dealing with the public every day.” For those unable to have the Pfizer vaccine due to genuine health reasons, however, he said there should be an exemption, but with caveats, such as mandatory mask wearing. “For practice owners it won’t be easy financially or mentally to stand down a great staff member who for personal reasons doesn’t want to be vaccinated.”
As head of the School of Optometry and Vision Science at Auckland University, Professor Steven Dakin also supported the government’s move. “The growing importance of the healthcare component of optometry brings with it a responsibility that practitioners are doing all they can to ensure the safety of their patients. Certainly patients visiting our own university clinic would assume that the people seeing them had done everything in their power to minimise the risk of Covid transmission during their examination.”
Echoing the independent sector, a Luxottica spokesperson said, “OPSM New Zealand believes that the health and safety of its employees, their families, its customers and communities are the number one priority. We believe that vaccination policies will be a fundamental step in protecting each other and as a company we champion vaccinations as the most effective measure to prevent the spread of Covid-19.” Specsavers ANZ communication director Charles Hornor also stated Specsavers’ support for the government’s health response. “Every step of the way since March 2020 there have been new issues to grapple with based on the status of Covid19 along with corresponding Government guidance. (We) recognise the critical importance of the vaccine in combatting the spread and impact of the virus. As vaccination numbers rise and rise, we are continuing to encourage and support our team members to get vaccinated when they can.”
Those asked agreed, however, that it wasn’t practical to require customers to be vaccinated, but that practices should have strict protocols in place to protect staff from infection. The ODOB suggested members consult the MoH allied health practitioner patient flow chart to help make decisions on whether to see patients or not.