Thousands of optometrists across four states and territories have had varying limits placed on their ability to practise as Australia fights COVID-19 outbreaks on numerous fronts.
Eyecare professionals in parts of New South Wales, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia are all affected, with routine face-to-face care off limits in most cases. Private practice optometry in Perth and Peel face the most stringent measures, restricted only to telehealth or virtual care.
On its regularly-updated COVID-19 page, Optometry Australia has provided state-by-state guidance to advise how optometrists can comply with the latest lockdown regulations, which range from three days to two weeks.
It has also sent communications to its national database regarding the standing down on staff, and reiterated the importance of hygiene protocols to combat the highly contagious Delta variant.
New South Wales
Bondi is reportedly about to become the state’s largest cluster of the COVID pandemic, driven by the highly contagious Delta variant.
By Tuesday 29 June, the outbreak had reached 141 cases, and is expected to exceed the Northern Beaches cluster, which peaked at 151 cases.
Since 6pm Saturday 26 June all residents in the Greater Sydney region (including the Central Coast, Blue Mountains, Wollongong) have been subject to stay at home orders, which aren’t expected to expire until until 6pm on Friday 9 July.
Optometrists are allowed to travel to attend work but can only do so directly.
“The NSW Chief Allied Health Officer has confirmed that allied health practitioners may continue to provide urgent and essential care via face-to-face consultations – and routine consultations via telehealth.” Optometry NSW/ACT stated.
“Face-to-face routine, regular eyecare which can be deferred should be postponed until after the restrictions are lifted.”
Optometry NSW/ACT CEO Mr Andrew McKinnon said initial information showed optometrists were remaining open for time-critical care.
“We haven’t heard of anyone closing their doors at this stage, but a few who have called us have said it is very quiet,” he said.
The NSW Government is reviewing the situation on Friday 2 July.
The state’s Perth and Peel regions entered a snap four-day lockdown on Tuesday 29 June, after recording three cases, which started from Sydney’s outbreak of the Delta variant.
After some confusion about the limitations placed on optometrists, Optometry WA advised “private practice optometry has been confirmed as restricted to telehealth or virtual care only during this period”.
Any provider of the following services may attend work in person:
- Allied health services provided by allied health professionals working as essential workers in hospitals or in residential care facilities providing critical clinical care or as directed by the hospital; or
- Allied health services provided by allied health professionals working in private practice providing care through telehealth and other virtual care options; or
- Students, medical/nursing/midwifery/allied health on placement providing essential care in hospitals or in residential care facilities, or through telehealth;
Queensland health authorities are hoping a three-day lockdown will be enough after an unvaccinated COVID hospital ward receptionist was found to be infectious with the Delta strain.
The wide-ranging lockdown includes South East Queensland, Townsville city, Palm Island and Magnetic Island, given the 19-year-old hospital worker flew around the state during 10 days while she was infectious.
Optometry Qld/NT said the government had “not specified a requirement for optometry practices to close”.
“However, it is important for optometrists to remember that the intent of the lockdown is to limit movement and social interactions, and it remains at the member’s discretion if you choose to reschedule care,” the organisation stated.
“We remind optometrists to implement appropriate PPE and infection control in clinical practice.”
The COVID-19 outbreak linked to a Central Australian mine grew to 10, with two new cases diagnosed in the Northern Territory on 29 June.
The territory’s current lockdown is scheduled to expire at 1pm Friday 2 July, provided health authorities can rein in the outbreak.
“For the purposes of the directions allied health services provided by allied health professionals when providing critical clinical care are allowed during the lockdown. Routine care appointments should be rescheduled,” OA advised.
Critical clinical care is defined as:
- To prevent a significant change/deterioration in functional independence which would result in an escalation of care needs.
- To provide assessment and diagnostic services to patients whose care have been delayed as a result of previous restrictions, with any further delay likely to result in deterioration in functional independence or adverse health outcomes (including access to diagnostic imaging services or assessment for prescription of assistive equipment and technology).
- To provide services that are essential as part of a broader plan of care with a medical practitioner.
- To provide services that are part of a conservative management plan to avoid or delay elective surgery (as agreed with treating team).
- To provide services immediately following elective surgery that prevent secondary complications or aid functional recovery (as agreed with treating team).
Standing down staff
OA advised employers may stand down employees – without pay – who cannot be usefully employed because of a stoppage of work for which the employer cannot reasonably be held responsible.
Before standing down employees, OA urged employers to consider available options including:
- Whether the employee can be usefully employed i.e. are there any suitable alternative working arrangements (e.g. working from home or telehealth).
- Can changes be made to duties, hours of work or rosters by agreement with the employee which would allow them to keep working.
- Can the employee access any paid or unpaid leave including:
- agreement to take accrued annual leave (including at half pay);
- taking personal leave if employee is ill or injured or caring for an immediate family or household member who is ill or injured;
- agreement to take any other paid leave (e.g. long service leave if available) or unpaid leave (e.g. unpaid pandemic leave under the award if applicable).