As the state calls on qualified health care professionals to assist in its effort to vaccinate New Jersey adults during the COVID-19 pandemic, a bill Senator Patrick J. Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) sponsored, permitting optometrists to administer vaccines under certain circumstances, was signed into law.

The bill (S3306), of which Senator Shirley Turner (D-Hunterdon, Mercer) was also a sponsor, is expected to make the state’s current and future immunization efforts more robust, providing New Jersey with additional points of access for safe and convenient immunizations.

“Expanding immunization authority to optometrists will address gaps in access, improve health inequity and allow for significant scaling of the COVID-19 vaccination program,” said George Veliky, O.D., past president of the New Jersey Society of Optometric Physicians.

“Even going beyond this initial wave of vaccinations, as the virus continues to mutate, there’s a strong possibility of residents needing booster shots to maintain their immunity brought on through initial vaccinations.

“Therefore, the more professionals capable of delivering these immunizations, the better chance we stand at keeping these viruses down to negligible levels.”

Diegnan said he hopes as COVID-19 continues to abate in the Garden State, a second wave of the coronavirus will not emerge. 

"However," the senator said, "we should do everything possible to be prepared if that occurs. This legislation provides one more potent weapon in our state's arsenal to fight this deadly disease."

Assemblymembers Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson), Anthony Verrelli (D-Hunterdon, Mercer) and Yvonne Lopez (D-Middlesex), who sponsored the legislation in the General Assembly, issued a joint statement after Gov. Phil Murphy on Wednesday signed the bill into law.

“We’re all eager to see an end to this unprecedented crisis," the statement read. "A key factor influencing how quickly we can distribute vaccines to residents is how many health care professionals are available to help administer them. Expanding safe points of access for New Jerseyans to receive the COVID-19 vaccine will help our state get this pandemic under control more quickly and efficiently.”

According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), 99 percent of Americans live in a county with a doctor of optometry, and more than 90 percent of the U.S. Medicare beneficiary population lives within 15 minutes of an optometrist.

More than 46,000 optometrists practice nationwide, according to the AOA, which notes doctors of optometry in 19 other states were authorized to administer injections prior to Murphy signing S3306 into law.

Veliky said optometrists in New Jersey are highly trained and have the necessary experience to safely and effectively administer immunizations.

Under New Jersey law, the authorization for optometrists to administer immunizations is limited to immunizations against coronaviruses and influenza, and is contingent upon certification from the New Jersey State Board of Optometrists that the optometrist has met any training and qualification requirements established by the board’s rules and regulations.

During a public health emergency involving an outbreak or epidemic of a coronavirus or influenza, the New Jersey State Board of Optometrists may certify optometrists to administer immunizations for the specific disease for which the public health emergency has been declared, regardless of whether the board has adopted any rules and regulations for certifying optometrists to administer immunizations.

“Optometrists are independent, primary care doctors who provide a wide range of eye, health, and vision services to diverse patient populations,” Veliky said. “With respect to other immunizations such as influenza, doctors of optometry are well positioned to help and expand the state’s response to our public health challenges.

“Doctors of optometry deliver more than 80 percent of primary eye care in America. Optometrists provide treatment to thousands of patients in their offices.

“If we can offer immunizations, that would be fewer patients who would have to go and seek vaccinations elsewhere.”