NEW YORK—With the number of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise even as the U.S. scrambles to increase the pace of vaccinating eligible Americans, the day-to-day routine of eyecare practices and optical retailers across the nation has become a hodgepodge of procedures. Some practices (28 percent) are reporting higher capture rates than a year ago, while others (29 percent) say capture rate is down. The same holds true for the expectations around patient visits, with 24 percent of respondents expecting to see 1 percent to 10 percent more patients over the next 30 days, while 10 percent of respondents expect to see 1 percent to 10 percent fewer patients over the 30-day period.

These views on practice performance and operations were shared in Wave 19 of the Coronavirus ECP Survey conducted Jan. 27-28, 2021, by Jobson Research, which has been regularly surveying ECPs and optical retailers since the crisis and shutdowns happened in mid-March 2020. The respondents (503 overall) identified primarily as optometrists (50 percent) or optician/dispenser (42 percent), and were 63 percent female.

One area that has stayed fairly constant over the five months is the rate of revenue per practice on a weekly basis. In Wave 19, respondents said the revenue of the practice was 73 percent of what it had been the previous year, which compares with percentages of 76, 72, 74 and 74 over the previous four surveys going back to mid-September 2020.

Also staying constant over the past few months is the number of practices who believe they could be seeing more patients than they are currently serving now. Over the past three surveys, this percentage has been 65 percent, 61 percent and 61 percent. Of the balance of respondents who said the practice does not have the capacity to see more patients, the reasons cited in the most recent survey were government restrictions (40 percent) and lack of staff (38 percent), which is similar to past surveys.

On a bottom-line basis, most practices continue to report that monthly profitability is down when compared with year-ago results. In Wave 19 of the survey, 38 percent of respondents said the practice’s profitability was lower in the current year, which compares with 43 percent, 41 percent and 34 percent over the previous three Waves of the survey.

A new question in Wave 19 asked about the additional time required between patients to “clean the office or exam room” prior to the next patient entering. Six in 10 respondents said their practices were allocating five to 10 minutes (21 percent of respondents) or three to five minutes (40 percent of respondents). Seven percent of respondents said they were allocating between 10 to 15 minutes of time between practicing for cleaning and sanitizing procedures.

One sign of the positive sentiment among respondents is seen in the survey question about shutting down (perhaps again) in response to increasing incidents of infection or other factors. In Wave 19, 38 percent of respondents said they were “not that concerned” about the possibility of a shutdown, while the number of respondents who said they were either “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about a shutdown possibility dropped to 17 percent and 32 percent, respectively, from 19 percent and 43 percent, respectively, in Wave 18 of the survey conducted in late December.

About one-half of respondents (52 percent) noted that they are seeing fewer patients per day than in the year-ago period. This compares with 58 percent and 55 percent in the previous two surveys who were seeing few patients per day. In Wave 19, 32 percent of respondents said they are seeing “about the same” number patients as they did one year ago, compared with 27 percent with this response in the two previous surveys.

The Wave 19 results also show the highest percentage of respondents who acknowledge that either they or someone at their location has been infected with COVID-19. The percentage rose dramatically to 52 percent in the most recent survey, continuing the steady increase over the past six recent surveys in which the percentage has risen from 16 percent in August to 18, 22, 33 and then 42 percent in December.

Asked about the impact on business of staff not returning to work, more than one-third of respondents (35 percent) in Wave 19 said this has “worked out for the best” because the practice is seeing fewer patients currently. Among other respondents, 47 percent said the practice had to hire replacements (compared with 53 percent in the previous survey) and 26 percent said the practice “can’t see as many patients” currently because of the loss of staff members. The 26 percent response, however, is an improvement from the 31 percent of respondents who, in the previous two surveys, said the loss of staff affected the number of patients the practice could see.

In Wave 19, 54 percent of respondents said they already had received either one or two injections of the COVID-19 vaccine, while 20 percent said they “absolutely” planned to receive the vaccine at some point. Yet, 37 percent of respondents said either they or an eligible staff member has not been able to schedule a vaccine appointment. Ten percent of the respondents in Wave 19 said they are requiring all staff to be immunized.

Also in Wave 19, 47 percent of respondents said that even with the introduction of the vaccine, they do not plan to attend any live industry events in the foreseeable future. This compares with 46 percent who took this position in the late December survey.

Perhaps not surprisingly the percentage of respondents who said their location plans to integrate telehealth into the practice on a regular basis fell to its lowest level (27 percent) in Wave 19. In the previous three Waves of the survey, the percentage had steadily slipped from 56 percent to 35 percent and then 30 percent in the December survey.

In the area of telehealth, only 14 percent of respondents said they had billed for telehealth in the previous two weeks. This response also has fallen steadily since hitting a high of 70 percent in late April 2020. Even in December, 16 percent of respondents said they had billed for telehealth services in the previous two weeks.

The respondents to Wave 19 also noted that walk-in patients were slightly more likely to be accepted at their practice location than they had been a month ago. In Wave 19, 57 percent of respondents said they were accepting walk-in patients in the dispensary (compared with 55 percent in Wave 18) and 28 percent were accepting walks-in for eye exams (compared with 27 percent in Wave 18).

Click to view a PDF of the full survey results.