COVID-19 has changed everything about our daily lives, and healthcare access is no exception. Since the start of the pandemic, doctors have scrambled to transform their practices, primarily by canceling non-essential services and shifting to telehealth appointments. Though an imperfect solution, telehealth certainly served as an effective stopgap for providers and patients – but it doesn’t work for everything, and one field that can’t accomplish much via telehealth is dentistry. As a result, dentists largely shut down during the early weeks of the pandemic, as cases began their precipitous rise. At this point, however, patients have begun to wonder whether it’s time to head back to the dentist’s chair.
Our dental health is closely linked with our overall physical health, particularly cardiovascular health.The CDC has provided critical guidance for dentists’ offices that are reopening as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and this information comes at a critical juncture. Not only is there an increased need for emergency dental care right now, but regular dental checkups are critical to your overall health. Before you head into the dentist’s office, however, it’s important to learn more about your dentist’s safety procedures so you can properly comply upon arrival.
The Basics: Should You Go To The Dentist?
When it comes to dental care, the most fundamental question is, should you go? The short answer: yes. Our dental health is closely linked with our overall physical health, particularly cardiovascular health. Pediatric dental health is also important, and lack of dental care during early childhood can have lifelong consequences. Unlike some other types of medical care, you shouldn’t delay dental care.
It’s worth noting that, while most individual American dentists are encouraging their patients to come back, the professional advice on whether or not you should receive preventative dental care like check-ups and cleaning is split. In particular, the WHO has advised patients to skip these appointments, while the ADA responded with a statement saying they strongly disagree with the WHO and encourage all patients to schedule dental checkups. If you have specific concerns, you should raise those with your dentists before scheduling an appointment.
In Office Practices
Spacing Out Appointments: Dentists can’t see as many patients right now because they need to space out their appointments. This gives the staff time to sanitize rooms after patients leave and ensures that there aren’t too many patients in the waiting room at the same time. Because they can’t see as many patients per day right now, you may have to wait longer for an appointment.
Eliminating The Waiting Room: While some offices are just minimizing the number of people in their waiting rooms or removing some chairs to ensure everyone is spaced apart, others are skipping the waiting room altogether. You may be asked to call when you arrive and wait in your car until your appointment time.
Mandatory Masks: Mask orders vary from state to state, but most medical facilities have mandated masks. Obviously you can’t wear a mask during your dental exam, though, so this is just for during check-in. During the rest of your visit, it’s everyone else who will be donning PPE.
Increased PPE: Speaking of masks, many dentists are increasing the amount of PPE that they’re using during appointments right now because dental procedures tend to produce a large number of aerosols. One dentist stated that during high-risk procedures he wears two masks and a face shield, a hairnet, shoe covers, and long sleeves and long pants, and that he makes a point of changing between patients.
Temperature Checks And Disinfectant: You may have your temperature taken when you arrive at your dentist’s office, though of course asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers may not have elevated temperatures. You may also be asked to fill out a symptom questionnaire, allowing providers to screen out patients who may be showing early signs of coronavirus infection.
Changing Tools: As noted, dental procedures tend to produce a lot of aerosols, which pose the highest risk of transmission, which is why some dentists are swapping out electric tools for older, manual tools, even if it makes procedures take a bit longer. These older tools produce fewer aerosols, and thereby reduce transmission risk. Some are also using a tool called an extra oral, which can capture aerosols produced by electric tools, and many are asking patients to rinse their mouths with a hydrogen peroxide solution to minimize pathogen presence.
Not Sure? Ask!
As experts have described, dentists can’t fully eliminate the risk of COVID-19 transmission, but that’s true of all public places right now, from grocery stores and pharmacies to churches and movie theaters. All anyone can do is take the appropriate precautions, and most dentists’ offices are doing just that.
If you’re still concerned about going to the dentist, whether because of personal health risks or because of the pandemic, the best thing you can do is to contact your dentist and ask about their protocols. Your dentist is part of your healthcare team and they and their staff will be happy to answer your questions and ensure you have all the information you need to feel comfortable receiving treatment from them.