The New Normal For Dental Offices During COVID-19

Here’s what the ADA advises.

By Michael Bohl, MD, MPH
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UPDATE: This article has been updated with new information on September 18, 2020 - 3 p.m. EST.

Across the country, the COVID-19 pandemic caused all but essential businesses to shutter their doors. Grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations remained open. And now gyms, salons, and other retail stores are slowly reopening according to state and local guidelines. But while regular doctor’s offices continue accepting patients, there’s another type of doctor’s office you may not have thought about yet: the dentist. What will the new normal at dentital offices look like during COVID-19? 

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On March 16, 2020, the American Dental Association (ADA) recommended that dentists restrict their practices to essential services — basically, urgent and emergent care. This meant you could get a procedure done if you’re in severe pain or a tooth is at risk of dying, but your semi-annual cleaning was probably canceled.

Now that states are beginning to open up, it’s time for dentists to consider resuming normal functionality as well. In preparation for this, the ADA has put together a Return to Work Interim Guidance Toolkit for its members. Last updated on July 23, 2020, the Toolkit offers tips and guidelines for dentists to follow as they reopen their practices. In a time when we’re all wearing masks to prevent the spread of disease, it may feel weird to go to an appointment in which you keep your mouth open most of the time. So, here’s what you need to know about these guidelines and how you should prepare for your next dental appointment:

Before Your Appointment

The ADA recommends that dentists institute a pre-appointment screening process. Ahead of your appointment, somebody from the office may call you and ask you questions about your health, including any current symptoms and risk factors for COVID-19. If any of your answers indicate you may have COVID-19, you may be asked to reschedule your appointment. The ADA also suggests waiving any last-minute cancellation fees for patients who start to feel sick.

When You Show Up

When it’s time for your appointment, you may undergo a temperature check at the office to see if you have a fever. You may also be asked to complete another screening form, to see if anything has changed since the pre-appointment phone call. The ADA recommends that dentists provide a new pen for every patient.

The Waiting Room

The ADA recommends that hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, and other cleaning supplies be available in the waiting room. They also suggest waiting rooms be regularly cleaned on a schedule. Any communal items, such as reading materials and toys, should be removed. And chairs should be spaced out to allow patients to practice social distancing. 

Your Appointment

When you’re actually in the chair, there are a number of things the ADA recommends dentists, hygienists, and other staff do. First, paperwork should be limited. The computer should be covered with a barrier and changed between patients. Staff should wear a mask, wash their hands, and put on gloves in the room. The number of people that can accompany you should be limited, and staff should be kept at a minimum. Staff may review the screening questions with you to verify that all of your answers are accurate. Based on these answers, it is then up to the staff members to decide what procedures are appropriate to do at the visit. Staff may also use their professional judgment to determine which tools are safe to use. For instance, staff members may choose not to use tools that aerosolize particles from the mouth (a.k.a. tools that throw particles into the air). Lastly, rooms should be cleaned between every patient.

Guidelines for the Staff

The ADA’s guidelines also suggest ways the staff can stay protected. Staff members should practice good hand hygiene and should have access to personal protective equipment (PPE), including gowns. Employees may also be screened for symptoms and risk factors of COVID-19, and special considerations may be made for certain staff members, such as pregnant women. Private staff areas should also be modified with COVID-19 restrictions in mind. 

Other Precautions You Should Take

The ADA’s guidelines cover everything that happens while you’re in the office and they are geared toward keeping you safe. Therefore, any additional precautions you take just have to do with getting to the office and back home. Consider skipping public transportation, if possible. Be careful about what you touch and keep hand sanitizer with you for when you do need to touch things. If you want to be proactive, bring your own pen and mask with you. And if you get sick within 14 days after your appointment, call the office to let them know there may have been an exposure.

If you’re still hesitant to go into the office, think about why you were scheduled to go in the first place. Even though COVID-19 is on everybody’s mind, dental hygiene is still important, and any dental conditions you have may continue to get worse if you skip your appointment. If you have questions about the specific office you’re going to, call ahead to see if they are aware of the ADA’s guidelines. You can also inquire about your office’s specific COVID-19 policies and procedures ahead of time.

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Article written by Michael Bohl, MD, MPH