Lessons Learned During AIDS Crisis Make Visiting the Dentist Safer During COVID-19

Female Dentist with Face Shield

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused almost every industry to scramble — to try and quickly devise new and safer ways of conducting business. And while dentistry is not exempt from this fact, it’s a field that was far more prepared to safely deliver its services while also protecting both patients and staff. That’s because for decades, infection control has been (and will continue to be) second nature to dental professionals.

How AIDS Transformed Dentistry

While dentists’ offices have always been focused on maintaining a sterile environment, free of germs or other harmful pathogens, it was a worldwide epidemic that occurred even before COVID-19 that caused the industry to heighten its infection control practices. That, of course, was the HIV/AIDS crisis.

In the early 1980s (when there was little to no effective treatment for HIV and AIDS), practicing dentistry on the wrong patient could be dangerous, if not deadly. However, it didn’t take long for dentists to realize something had to be done, to protect the health of their patients and their staffs. In her article, “Viral pandemics and oral health: Lessons learned from HIV to SARS-CoV-2,” Dr. Lauren L. Patton describes in detail the important changes HIV necessitated for dentists everywhere. “Until the discovery of HIV in 1985, dentists typically wore gloves only for surgical and some endodontic procedures, long-sleeved gowns were nonexistent in restorative dental practice, handpieces were not routinely autoclave sterilized, and masks and protective eyewear were rarely used in general dental settings.” Of course, these protective measures soon became standard, and effective — in limiting the transmission of not just HIV, but other illnesses.

Measures Adopted in the Fight Against COVID-19 Infection

And since the advent of COVID-19, dental practices are using their skills and knowledge about infection control and taking it to the next level — again. In fact, a survey conducted in May and June of 2020 discovered that 99.7% of dental offices had implemented enhanced infection control procedures. Some of the procedures cited included more frequent disinfection and COVID-19 screening, social distancing, and providing face masks to staff and patients. Additionally, many practices are also implementing measures such as enhanced air filtration, plexiglass barriers, and disposable plastic covers on dental chairs and other equipment to make it easier to keep surfaces clean.

Proof That it’s Working

Although dentistry was considered to be one of the most at-risk professions for contracting COVID-19, a recent study delivered some welcome news. In June, the American Dental Association (ADA) reported that less than one percent of dentists nationwide were found to be infected by COVID-19 — a rate of infection that was far below that of other healthcare professionals.   

Dr. Marcelo Araujo, the senior author of the ADA report, had this comment, "This is very good news for dentists and patients. This means that what dentists are doing — heightened infection control and increased attention to patient and dental team safety — is working." Mia Geisinger, a co-author of the ADA report adds, “Because of these findings and because we have no known reports of transmission of COVID-19 during the provision of dental care, we feel that resuming dental visits is important.”

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