Dentistry in the Time of COVID-19: What You Need to Know Now

Dentist using PPE with female patient
  • Respected dental authorities encourage patients not to ignore dental health during the pandemic
  • Dental practices are adhering to CDC’s safety protocols
  • Teledentistry is playing an important role in safer dental visits

In the spring of 2020, the Coronavirus pandemic forced most dental practices to close their doors to all but emergency and essential care patients. The intent at the time was not only to reduce individuals’ potential exposure to the virus, but also to preserve personal protection equipment (PPE), and to keep patients out of the emergency rooms of over-burdened hospitals. Dentists rose to the challenge, coming to the aid of their patients in a time of crisis, and solidifying their status as essential care providers.

After an initial, month-long shutdown, most dental practices have returned to offering a full range of dental treatments and preventative care. However, the guidelines for offering these expanded services are not always clear cut, and often vary depending on the area and its level of infection.

It’s a situation that leaves most patients to ask some important questions.

Should I Visit the Dentist Now?

Like most everything surrounding the Coronavirus, there is no one, simple answer to this question. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that there have been no cases of COVID-19 being traced to dental practices. Yet, unlike many other organizations, they stop short of telling patients to visit the dentist. In fact, the American Dental Association (ADA) has come out strongly in support of patients resuming dental visits (calling all dental care “essential”) as long as guidelines from the Center for Disease Control (CDC) are met.

ADA president, Chad Gehani, D.D.S. states, “Millions of patients have safely visited their dentists in the past few months for the full range of dental services. With appropriate PPE, dental care should continue to be delivered during global pandemics or other disaster situations.”

Additionally, many dentists are encouraging patients to visit their dentist for non-essential services to prevent more severe outcomes in the future. A recent article posted by National Public Radio (NPR) puts the importance of consistent care into perspective, “Delaying checkups or care for dental pain can potentially turn a small cavity into a root canal or tooth extraction and add to treatment time, higher costs and even more pain.”

What Are Patients Saying About Receiving Routine Dental Care?

Delta Dental released survey results on October 8, 2020, finding that a significant amount of Americans believe that routine dentist appointments remain important during the pandemic. Specifically, 69% of Americans agree the benefits of a routine dentist appointment outweigh the potential risks of delaying preventive care. Additionally, 91% of Americans believe taking care of their oral health now will help prevent other health problems later. 

These figures are much more positive than those revealed by a Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll that was released in June. That research reported that 52% of adults said they or a family member skipped or delayed dental or medical care due to COVID-19 during recent months; a figure that is 4% higher than it was in May. 

What Should I Expect From my Dentist?

Again, the ADA’s support for non-essential dental visits depends heavily on proper CDC safety measures being in place. You’re likely to notice some of these procedures and precautions being utilized even before you enter the office — such as pre-visit health screening questions, and symptom checking at the door.

Here are a few more changes you might experience when visiting a conscientious dental practice:

  • Completing paperless forms before your visit.
  • Waiting in your car or outside the waiting room for your appointment.
  • A waiting room cleared of magazines, coffee stations, toys or other items to prevent surface transmission.
  • Facemasks required not just for team members, but also for patients and other visitors (except during actual procedures).
  • Plexiglas shields separating patients and the front office team members.
  • The use of hand tools, versus power tools (such as a polisher), whenever possible to help prevent aerosolizing any contaminants.
  • High-efficiency particulate air filters to improve room filtration, and reduce airborne particles.

While these new safety measures may be a bit surprising to many patients, creating the safest environment as possible is just another day at the office for dental professionals. Periodontist and California Dental Association president, Richard Nagy, states it in this way, “Dentists are really great at infection control and being prepared to create safety. That’s what we’re good at, and that’s what we’re doing.”

How Many Dentists Are Using Teledentistry for an Added Level of Safety

Of course, the only thing safer than visiting a responsibly protected and sanitized dental office is staying at home. That’s why an increasing number of dentists are embracing the use of teledentistry, to provide virtual dental visits to those patients who might prefer them.

Teledentistry with a female patient

Because teledentistry gives patients the option of interacting via video in real time, or exchanging photos and other information securely by text or email, it is ideal for a number of situations, including:

  • Emergency services and consultations
  • Some medication prescription
  • Pre-surgery screenings
  • Second opinions 
  • Pediatric and preventive care
  • Serving the ill or immunocompromised patient
  • At-home orthodontics and monitoring

Staying Informed to Stay Safe

As conditions change and as we learn more about the Coronavirus — especially as it relates to dental health and care — both patients and dentists have had to respond quickly and carefully. Dentists regularly monitor information from organizations such as the CDC, the ADA, the WHO, and others to adopt the most up-to-date, effective and comprehensive safety measures for their practices.

As a patient, you can keep checking here for updates (to this article and more), as well as visiting sites such as the ADA’s patient-oriented MouthHealthy for accurate, fact-based information about how COVID-19 might affect your oral health.

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