The COVID-19 pandemic is changing every aspect of our lives from accessing health care to buying groceries, educating our children, and interacting with friends and family.
Going to the dentist is no exception. Many dentists are using teledentistry services to provide urgent care. Others are keeping their offices open for emergencies only. Changes to office policies and procedures are being implemented at offices across the country. Regardless, your next visit to your dentist may look different than it did at your last check-up.
Changes at your next dentist office visit
Dental work sometimes causes droplets and sprays of your saliva and blood into the air. Drilling, scaling, and polishing are some examples of dental services that cause germs to be released into the air and land on surfaces. The COVID-19 virus has been shown to live for hours in the air and perhaps for days on certain types of surfaces.¹
Therefore, your dental staff will be taking extra precautions to prevent cross-contamination between patients. Additionally, dental offices will most likely need or want to take extra precautions to adhere to social-distancing regulations, minimize the number of patients in the office at one time, and protect patients and staff from exposure.
While current standard precautions are designed to protect dental workers and patients from exposure to blood-borne diseases, the COVID-19 virus presents new challenges. The normal procedures to protect staff and patients may take a giant leap forward, including the way patients make appointments, what the staff and dentist wear during procedures, how waiting rooms are used, how treatment areas are set up, and the number of patients allowed in the treatment area at one time.
Here are some ways that your next dental visit might be different from those in the past.
1. Making a dentist appointment
When you call to make an appointment, the scheduler may begin by quizzing you about symptoms including fever, shortness of breath, and presence of a cough. Questions about any recent travel and the status of any COVID-19 testing you have had are also appropriate at this stage.²
2. Arriving at the dentist appointment
Upon arrival at the office, you may have to wait in your car until a staff member comes out to escort you inside. Much like picking up groceries, you may need to call a number to let the staff know you have arrived.
A staff member wearing PPE might come to your vehicle, take your temperature, review your medical history, question you about symptoms, and provide you with hand sanitizer, disposable gloves, a gown, and a mask. Keep in mind that just because you have no symptoms doesn’t mean you do not carry the virus. Do not be insulted when asked about symptoms.
3. Waiting room changes
Once inside, the waiting area may look quite different. Magazines and children’s toys may be removed. The reception desk may now have a plastic barrier to protect the office staff. All the chairs and sofas may have been removed or replaced with plastic ones that can be wiped down with disinfectant. You will be escorted straight to your dental chair since only those people with appointments will be allowed into the office.
4. Treatment area changes
In many dental offices, dentist chairs are not located in private rooms with doors and floor-to-ceiling walls. Some use an open room style with several chairs in one large area separated by half-sized walls. This is especially common in pediatric clinics and orthodontist offices.
Dentists may need to install plastic curtains or temporary walls to separate each chair. While this may seem unsightly, it could provide protection from patient-to-patient contamination when more than one patient is undergoing treatment. Ventilators and exhaust fans may be added to treatment areas to remove contaminated air.
5. Starting the dental procedure
When you get to the dental chair, a staff member may take your temperature again along with your blood pressure. To cut down on the production of aerosol spray during procedures, your dentist may use barriers called rubber dams. Although these have been used for certain procedures, you might find your dentist uses them anytime they have to use a drill. The dentist may ask you to rinse with an antimicrobial mouthwash, such as Listerine, hydrogen peroxide, or a similar product before starting treatment.
6. Finishing the dentist appointment
When your procedure is completed, the assistant will help you remove your gloves and gown and supply you with hand sanitizer. You can then go to the reception area to make payments, file insurance, and schedule follow-up appointments.
7. Financial considerations
With many patients being out of work for several months, some who have lost jobs and their dental insurance, dentists may be looking for innovative ways to help get patients back on track with their dental work. Look for more dental credit options, in-house financing plans, more universal acceptance of dental insurance plans, and credit card acceptance.
8. Revised hours of operation
Another area that might see a revision in standard practice are the hours your dentist office is opened. Rather than a set 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, you might see early, late, and weekend hours so dentists can accommodate patients. Flexible schedules might be the new normal.
Dentists may also offer extended hours to catch up on months of appointment backlogs and make up for the fact that they can see fewer patients at one time.
How do dentists control the spread of infections?
Most dental offices have adopted procedures for cleaning, disinfecting, and sterilizing every surface and instrument used for patient care. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have published strict guidelines that dental offices must follow.³
Strict protocols have been in place for many years, and all dental offices adhere to these regulations. Protocols include protecting patients by sterilization of all instruments and supplies used on each patient and using disposable items whenever possible. Your dentist and clinical staff are accustomed to wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) such as one-time-use gloves and masks plus eye protection. Disposable plastic barriers cover cabinet tops, chairs, trays, and other surfaces.
All these practices are already in place to protect patients and dental workers from airborne, bloodborne, and surface bacteria.
Dentists are at risk too
While you as a patient are concerned about staying safe from the virus, take just a moment to think about the exposure your dentist and their staff encounter on a daily basis.
Dentistry is not an activity that can be accomplished using social distancing. The dentist, assistant, and hygienist must be up close and personal with every patient. This means they have far more exposure to potential virus carriers than the average person. Protecting themselves from the virus is of primary importance so they can continue to deliver dental care to their patients.
Extra precautions, such as having patients wear gloves, sanitize their hands, keeping waiting rooms clear, removing magazines and toys, and taking other measures keeps not only the dental patients safe but also protects the dental staff from needless exposure to the virus. You may notice the dental staff wearing a higher level of protective equipment, such as full-face shields and thicker masks, especially during procedures that generate aerosols and spray.
Although dentists have covered chairs and surfaces with disposable plastic for many years, you may see even more plastic barriers on light switches, doorknobs, and bathroom fixtures. These are in place to protect you and the dental staff.
Remember, again, that having no symptoms does not mean you do not have the virus. Many people are carriers but feel perfectly fine. Dental staff members will most likely treat every patient as though they are infectious. Precautions taken by the dental staff are in place to protect you, other patients, and themselves.
Will dental offices ever go back to normal?
There may be a new normal once this pandemic has passed. It is doubtful that dental offices will ever have waiting rooms filled with patients, children, magazines, books, and toys. Dental offices will need to adapt to new protocols to keep patients and staff safe from contracting COVID-19 now and in the future.
Due to our increased use of sanitizer and face masks, patients may be more educated about sterilization and more interested in seeing the ways the dentist and staff follow guidelines from the CDC. Don’t be afraid to ask about sterilization practices, reasons for plastic coverings, the types of protective equipment, or the ways the dental staff disinfects the treatment areas and waiting rooms.
Keeping your teeth healthy during COVID-19
COVID-19 and its aftermath are going to affect us all for months and years to come. While the virus is still affecting thousands of people and most of us still have some level of shelter-in-place orders, your local dental office may only be able to treat true dental emergencies. However, as restrictions are lifted by state and local governments and health officials, your dentist office will open.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is more important than ever to maintain good dental health. Daily brushing with fluoride toothpaste, flossing, and eating a healthy diet low in sugar and acids can help ensure that you do not have a dental emergency. As soon as local dental office reopens, call to make an appointment.
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Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice. This is not dental care advice and should not be substituted for regular consultation with your dentist. If you have any concerns about your dental health, please contact your dentist's office.
https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/dental-settings.html. Accessed May 2020
Brought to you by The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America (Guardian), New York, NY. Material discussed is meant for general illustration and/or informational purposes only and it is not to be construed as tax, legal, investment or medical advice.(exp.05/22)