COVID-19: Patients Continue Seeking Eye Care During Pandemic

In March, Sahithi Pisupati scheduled an appointment with her optometrist, Philadelphia Optometrics, eager to get a new pair of glasses. Shortly after her appointment, though, the office closed down due to COVID-19 restrictions, and Pisupati had no idea when she might get her new glasses. 

Even after the office opened back up in June, Pisupati couldn’t easily make it back in again. She had to wait to get a day off from work to pick up her glasses, which she finally received in September. 

“When I got the glasses, I forgot what they looked like,” Pisupati said. “The whole place was completely different because they had social distancing measures in place.”

COVID-19 has meant significant changes to the way patients receive care in any medical setting, including eye care offices. Some offices closed in early spring and have been working through a backlog of patients since reopening in midsummer. Other offices remained open throughout the pandemic but have continued seeing patients at a lower volume. 

Dr. Melissa A. Vitek, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania College of Optometry, which is part of the Salus University health system, has continued to see patients and supervise the students who work alongside her at Salus Univeristy’s Eye Institute

The office instituted new protocols early on in the pandemic. 

“Before anyone, whether it’s a student, a patient, or a doctor, or a staff member is even allowed into the building, they have to have their temperature checked,” she said. “And then they are also screened and asked certain questions: Are you not feeling well?  Have you had basic symptoms? Has anyone in your family or anyone you’ve been in contact with test positive for COVID?” 

An eye appointment requires close contact, so staff and doctors at The Eye Institute are sure to wear personal protective equipment, Vitek said. 

“The students, doctors, and staff are all wearing masks,” Vitek said. “There are shields that are plasticthe plexiglass shieldsthat are placed on all of our equipment. Everything’s wiped down and disinfected in between patients.”

All patients also have to wear masks before entering the office.

“When patients arrive and [if] they’re not wearing the proper mask, then we provide them with the proper mask,” she said.

Pisupati noticed new protocols at Philadelphia Optometrics when she picked up her new glasses in September. 

“They had some distancing measures in place,” she said. “They checked my temperature and they had a limited capacity there. I didn’t feel uncomfortable because it’s not very crowded. I wore a mask and washed my hands right after I came back.” 

Mariel Ferry trusts the setup at the optometrist she goes to, Bistline Vision Care in the Willow Grove Mall. Though she is wary of crowds at the mall, the office has been sending her regular updates, communicating all of the mitigations they have put in place to keep patients safe. 

“I know that when I [eventually] do go in there, they are very good and professional and have already sent out newsletters and flyers and things about the pandemic,” Ferry said. “I know that they would take great care of me.”

Vitek hopes as patients see how COVID-19 protocols work, they will schedule medical appointments more regularly. 

“I think once patients came in and saw all the protocols we have in place, they have been telling us they feel much more comfortable,” she said. “For example, patients that I’ve seen in July…came back because they felt comfortable with the protocols we had in place.

Still, The Eye Institute sees fewer patients than before the pandemic. Staff limit the number of patients they schedule based on the size of the waiting room.

“I’d say we are down by about a third of the number of patients we’d typically see,” she said. “Between March and July, most patients wanted to stay home. They were nervous about coming in, and they would only come if they were having an emergency.” 

The Eye Institute also offers a minimal amount of telehealth as an alternative to coming in person. When patients call in, staff try to triage their symptoms, encouraging them to come into the office if there is an emergency, or scheduling a telehealth appointment for symptoms that might not need an in-person observation. 

“We had some telehealth where patients hop on a Zoom call,” Vitek said. “We would look at their eyes or they would take a picture of their eye and send it to us via email.” 

With people attending work, school, and social events online, individuals are experiencing screen fatigue more frequently and may seek an optometrist’s advice, Vitek said

Sahithi works on computer software engineering homework. (Photo courtesy of Sahithi Pisupati)

“My major is computer science and I am on screen a lot,” Pisupati said. “During my internship, I was on screens [for] eight hours a day.” 

More and more patients at The Eye Institute are also complaining about strain related to increased screen time. 

“We are having people complain that they are tired,” Vitek said. “They find themselves on the computer just because that’s their only chance to be social. We are having more people come in and complain about dryness in the eyes, eye strain.” 

Several patients are also asking for prescriptions for glasses that can help reduce the strain of computer lights on their eyes. 

“They want glasses specifically for their computers because they are having a hard time functioning, whereas before they weren’t on the computer that much,” Vitek said. 

For screen-related eye strain, Vitek recommends artificial tears that individuals can buy over the counter, as well as regular breaks.

“You should take a break every 20 minutes for at least 20 seconds looking at something at least 20 feet away or further,” she said.

Eye strain can be very distracting and frustrating, and taking care to prevent strain can help keep individuals from burning out on all the activities that require them to look at screens, Vitek said. 

“I combat it by going out for a walk and getting fresh air,” Pisupati said. “And getting some small breaks in between where I am not looking at a screen.” 

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