All 50 states across the U.S. are allowing elective or routine dental procedures and dental offices around the country are reopening after many closed their doors to all but emergency appointments due to COVID-19.
Surveys show that over 90% of dental offices have opened for elective treatment by June 1. However, the average practice reported just over half the normal patient volume at that time.1 While many dentist offices are now open, the number of patients receiving care is significantly lower than pre-pandemic levels. Contact your dentist to check their availability.
Why are fewer patients being seen?
Since the ADA’s original recommendation to postpone all elective care expired on April 30, dental office re-openings have varied from region to region. Some offices have chosen to stay closed due to safety concerns, personal protective equipment (PPE) acquisition, and staffing challenges.
As the country slowly returns to normal activities, many factors influence the path forward for dental practices. There are many reasons why fewer-than-average patients are receiving treatment:
- Practices are adopting new guidelines and mandates
- Social distancing effects healthcare facilities, too
- Patients are wary of returning to normal routines too soon
- Unemployment and financial concerns hinder access to care
- Patients have other priorities to address first
The trend in ADA surveys shows a steady increase in patient volume across the country. State and local directives supersede any guidelines set forth by the ADA, so significant variations exist across regions.
Why did dental offices close?
On March 16, the American Dental Association (ADA) published a directive to its members that advised postponing elective dental care for three weeks to promote social distancing and slow the spread of COVID-19. Subsequent recommendations extended the period until the end of April. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also set parameters that directed emergency dental care only across the country.
States across the country widely varied in their response to the national guidelines. Some states never required the full suspension of dental care. But others produced executive orders that mandated closure.
Regardless of the direction given by authorities, polling from the American Dental Association showed a significant impact on dental services. By April 10, 80% of dental offices had shut down for everything except urgent care.2 The ADA reported that over 90% of offices ultimately closed during the height of the pandemic. While most offices responded to state mandates, others chose to voluntarily close due to safety concerns for their employees and patients.
Could dentists close again?
As the world learns more about COVID-19 and how to handle it, healthcare systems will continue to adjust. New standards may become the norm, and treatment capacity will likely increase.
Dental offices are unlikely to close again for COVID-19. But governing bodies have warned that elective care could be suspended again if there’s a new surge in cases. PPE demand and supplies are closely monitored to ensure all segments of healthcare have what they need. Some states have defined phases for elective care and established metrics for moving between phases.
How long will reduced patient care levels last?
No one knows how long dental offices will operate at reduced capacity, but ADA surveys show a trend towards normal levels. In mid-May, 16% of offices reported operating at 76% of normal or greater. By June 1, that number had climbed to 28%.3
As dental teams become more comfortable with new guidelines and patients return to their routines, dental care should continue to move towards normal volumes. But the physical layout of space and staffing availability will produce differences between offices.
How many dental workers are back to work?
The May jobs report provided another window into how many dental offices opened as restrictions began to ease. The economy added 2.5 million jobs in May and dental jobs accounted for 10% of the total job gains. Dentist offices added 244,800 jobs, as dentists began seeing more patients.4
What about PPE?
After extensive consultations with the ADA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) raised dentistry to #4 on the FEMA PPE priority list5 since dentists require sufficient volumes of PPE to treat patients in their offices. In addition, manufacturers and suppliers have started trickling more PPE into the supply chain. While PPE levels will take months to return to pre-pandemic levels, a steady flow should return and dental offices should benefit.
Is dentistry safe?
Dentistry has long practiced a high standard of infection control to prevent the spread of bacteria, viruses, and other harmful substances. In the 1980s, the appearance of HIV led many dental offices to treat every patient as a potential carrier of any contagious disease.
Some dental procedures produce aerosols, small droplets of saliva that suspend in the air for an extended period. COVID-19 spreads mainly by respiratory droplets that can end up in your mouth, nose, or eyes. Theoretically, there is some risk that virus particles could be aerosolized. But the risk for patients to contract the virus in a dental office is relatively low. Get five ways to stay safe at your next dentist appointment.
Open for your health
Like the rest of society, dentistry continues to adjust to the effects of COVID-19. Some of the changes will be temporary, but others may stay with us for years. In healthcare, the changes include many measures that protect patients and providers against disease transmission.
The majority of dental offices across the U.S. are open for elective dental care, including cleanings. Visiting your dentist regularly is an important part of preventing tooth decay and gum disease and dental insurance can help you pay for it.
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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.