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DIGGING DEEPER: Dental dilemma

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TUCSON - She’s an experienced dental hygienist who’s not returning to work until receiving assurances from her dentist that it’s safe, because she’s afraid of getting the coronavirus.

“We need to wait,” she said. “It’s too soon to go back. We need time. We need time and a change in dentistry to safely resume.”

“Karen,” not her real name, requested anonymity because she’s afraid of getting fired.

Her concerns come after recent studies have shown dental hygienists are at or near the top of the riskiest jobs.

“When you go to a dental office,” she explained, “it’s impossible to eliminate the production of aerosols. It’s the very hand-pieces that do the filling and the crown. It’s the very hand-pieces that do your hygiene appointments, cleanings, polishing teeth.”

Aerosols are airborne particles of debris and microorganisms that propel into the air from oral cavities.

Katrina Sanders is an industry consultant and dental hygienist.

Sanders said hygienists and patients should ask their dentist questions before going to the office.

“One of the best questions you can ask your dental provider is if they are instituting screening measures to essentially protect you as the patient,” Sanders said.

“Also, are they using measures like high-speed evacuation? Those are measures that we take to reduce the amount of viruses that enter the air during a dental appointment,” Sanders said.

High-speed evacuation is equipment that quickly removes microorganisms and bacteria.

Dr. Dan Klemmedson is president of the American Dental Association and a local oral surgeon.

“We are doing everything we can to make sure that we can provide necessary oral health care to our patients yet keep them safe, keep our staff safe," Klemmedson said. "We have trained all of our staff in the nature of this particular virus.”

There’s a table near the entrance of Klemmedson’s practice with sanitizer and masks, which must be worn by staff and patients.

In addition, everyone's temperatures are taken.

These precautions are among many Klemmedson has instituted, and “Karen” wishes her dentist would follow suit.

“We have made some engineering changes to try to improve the ventilation in our office," Klemmedson said. "Upgraded some of the filters in our normal HVAC, and converted some of our treatment rooms so that they have even better ventilation.”

Klemmedson advised patients who are afraid of going to the dentist or an oral surgeon during the pandemic.

“I would say ask questions. I’m perfectly happy to answer a question any time a patient has a concern,” Klemmedson said.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention recommends that dentists should:

  • Postpone non-urgent visits.
  • Screen everyone for fever and symptoms of COVID-19 before they enter the dental setting.
  • Screen employees for fever and symptoms before every shift.

As for “Karen," she hopes to find out soon that her dentist is complying.

“I’m sad,” she said, “I miss working. I like working, I like seeing my patients.”

More information from the American Dental Association can be found here:

For more information from the CDC regarding dental settings, click here.

Matthew Schwartz

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