In March of 2020, dentist’s offices were locked down in response to COVID-19, with the American Dental Association recommending they postpone all but emergency procedures. With staggered reopening rollouts happening nationwide, going to the dentist during coronavirus is now a genuine prospect but it’s also a personal choice. Equip yourself with the most up-to-date safety practices to ease your mind, though we can’t promise it’ll ease your toothache.
Due to the nature of the work, there is significant risk of coronavirus transmission at the dentist’s office. Drills, power scalers, and all those little devices that spray air and water can easily transmit droplets of saliva and microorganisms to surfaces — filling the air with aerosolized droplets from the mouth and nose — which can remain there for hours at a time. If a patient is infected with COVID-19, those droplets can spread the virus.
However, as of late summer 2020, NPR reports that no cases of COVID-19 have been traced to dental offices so far, despite the risk. Speaking to the same source, Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist Dr. Gregory Poland says, “The hope is that recommendations for their practices that all dentists would be following will mitigate that risk.”
So what are the recommendations for going to the dentist during coronavirus? The CDC lays them out in their guidelines for dental settings, which are being continually updated. Here are some key precautions dentists are (or should be) taking:
- Screen patients before each appointment and check for COVID-19 symptoms upon arrival
- Cut back on unnecessary surfaces in waiting rooms and equip reception areas with barriers between patients and staff
- Require patients to wait in their vehicle or in another spot outside of the waiting room
- Require all staff, patients and anyone else in the office to wear masks—the patient’s mask should only come off during an active procedure
- Provide patients with a rubber mouth dam during procedures to limit aerosol sprays
- Avoid the use of powered dental tools whenever possible and only leave out the tools needed for each individual patient’s procedure
- Increase speed of any procedures that generate aerosols to limit exposure
- Install high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters to reduce airborne transmission of coronavirus
What You Can Do
So it’s essential for dentists to follow CDC guidance, but what can you do as a patient?
Speaking to Medium in August 2020, dental practice infection control specialist Mary Govoni recommended monitoring your local pandemic dynamics. In low-population areas with low or decreasing coronavirus cases, regular dental checkups are safer; in large cities with high or rising case numbers, it’s best to limit your appointments to emergency care rather than preventive or non-emergency treatment. Likewise, consider waiting on preventive care if you are part of a high-risk population, such as someone who is over the age of 65, is a smoker or has a respiratory condition.
If you have any symptoms of COVID-19, such as a cough, sore throat, runny nose or fever, it’s imperative that you postpone your dental appointment until you have tested negative for the virus. Otherwise, now that you know the CDC’s recs, call your dentist to ensure they’re following guidance before your trip, and ask if the staff is routinely tested. Also, be prepared to socially distance and pack your most protective mask.
Oh, and bring a long book, because it is still the dentist’s office after all!