By Anne Blythe

As North Carolina’s workforce is being encouraged to hunker down at home and telecommute, dentist offices across the state have been given leeway in how they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The state Board of Dental Examiners, which oversees licensing and disciplinary actions for dentists in this state, posted a notice on its website last week with guidance for the more than 5,100 dentists and 6,100 hygienists across the state.

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“The board recognizes that circumstances vary deeply within our state and no two dental practices are alike,” the notice states. “You as a dentist have the best information regarding your patients, your auxiliary personnel, and the community you serve.”

The board encouraged all practices to postpone any non-urgent care and elective care until at least the end of the month.

graphic including an image of coronavirus

Dentists, hygienists and other oral health care workers are considered to be at higher risk for transmitting and contracting the infection. Not only are they in close proximity to their patients, but they also handle drills that use water to cool the bit as well as aerosol rinsing devices that can propel germs and droplets from inside the mouth into the air.

On March 18, the state dental board posted a new notice in response to a barrage of pleas calling for a full shutdown.

“The NC State Board of Dental Examiners has received numerous requests for the Board to mandate the closure of all NC dental offices in response to the coronavirus pandemic,” the post states. “However, the Dental Board lacks the authority to mandate the closure of dental offices. Notwithstanding certain federal authority, the authority to close North Carolina businesses resides with the Governor, certain state agencies, and county and local governments under the emergency powers of the state.”

None of those agencies to date has ordered a full shutdown.

“In the meantime, dentists, who strictly adhere to all sterilization and disinfection guidelines, should consider the continuation of emergency care to prevent dental patients from adding stress to hospitals, hospital emergency rooms, and urgent care facilities,” the March 18 notice states. “Likewise, rescheduling or postponing non-urgent, routine, and elective procedures is advised to lessen the risk of an inadvertent spread of the virus.”

The American Dental Association issued a recommendation on March 16 suggesting a three-week pause, longer than the North Carolina board’s guidelines initially suggested on delaying routine cleanings and non-urgent procedures.

“The ADA is deeply concerned for the health and well-being of the public and the dental team,” Chad P. Gehani, ADA president, said in a March 16 statement recommending a three-week postponement of elective procedures.

“Concentrating on emergency dental care will allow us to care for our emergency patients and alleviate the burden that dental emergencies would place on hospital departments.”

Board responds to rapid changes

Since the State Public Health Laboratory reported its first presumptive positive result for COVID-19 on March 3, the state has been in a constant state of flux, responding to quickly evolving events.

Gov. Roy Cooper declared a state of emergency on March 10 and then ordered that crowds be no larger than 100 people, while recommending gatherings be fewer than 50.

When he ordered the closing of bars and restaurants on March 17, the governor noted many establishments had not adhered to his guidance. He acknowledged the financial hardships that many businesses, households and individuals would have even as he pursued measures to blunt the impact of the contagious pathogen, especially if the situation goes on for a while.

Alec Parker, executive director of the N.C. Dental Society, said most of the offices across the state that he has heard from are not seeing patients for routine procedures such as cleanings and even in some cases not filling cavities.

Some, though, are continuing with urgent care. They’re doing so, in part, to help keep those people out of emergency rooms where they might otherwise land as the state tries to lighten routine hospital loads to make room for the swelling needs predicted to come with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of midday Thursday, North Carolina had 93 people who tested positive for the infection, but those numbers are expected to rise as the ability to test has expanded and more results come in. Secretary of Health and Human Services Mandy Cohen said the state has had its first “community-acquired” case, a key indicator that the disease has started spreading silently among the population.

The state has not reported any COVID-19 related deaths.

Precautions advised, guidelines provided

Parker said the Dental Society is advising any practices that continue seeing patients to take temperatures of all staff in the office first thing in the morning, again at midday and at the close of the day.

Though there is no order forcing offices to do that, Parker said he thought dentists would take the precautions. Too much is at risk if they don’t, he said.

“Dentists are pretty compliant people,” Parker added.

Parker said his organization is aware that some of these decisions might have negative financial consequences for many practices and their employees but said there are a number of efforts in the works that could help bring some relief created by the loss in revenue and any needed reductions to employee hours.

Now that North Carolina has its first case believed to be spread to someone who had no known contacts with anyone who had tested positive, there likely will be more guidelines issued in the coming weeks.

The Dental Society has set up a web page where providers can get information and training notices as the pandemic continues.

The American Dental Association sent out guidelines for how oral health care providers should determine what constitutes a dental emergency and urgent dental care.

“Dental emergencies are potentially life threatening and require immediate treatment to stop ongoing tissue bleeding, alleviate severe pain or infection, and include: Uncontrolled bleeding; cellulitis or a diffuse soft tissue bacterial

infection with intra-oral or extra-oral swelling that potentially compromise the patient’s airway; and trauma involving facial bones, potentially

compromising the patient’s airway.”

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Anne Blythe, a reporter in North Carolina for more than three decades, writes about oral health care, children's health and other topics for North Carolina Health News.

4 replies on “Dentists and hygienists pressure state boards to close dental offices”

  1. Same for the optical industry!! We are being made to go to work right now (I personally work for a large retail optical company) with instructions to practice the heightened hygiene and cleaning protocols as well as social distancing, which is impossible in our industry. I cannot adjust glasses or measure for lenses from 6ft away. The industry standard is to be no more than 2ft away to get an accurate measurement. We are very concerned about performing our job duties and keeping ourselves and others safe at the same time. It can’t be done properly. Not to mention, every product our company sells comes from Italy or China – where the virus originated and has been the most severe.

    I don’t know who to go to for guidance on how to get the concerns of our employees to be heard! We are still open, located inside a shopping mall where 70% of the stores are closed. From Sunday 3/15 to Friday 3/20, almost 900 people have walked thru our doors and not for emergency services. This is an alarming amount of traffic we are exposed to posing a threat for employees customers and their families!

    1. Is this a possible interim solution(given no policies yet about either dentistry or optical industries):
      Require masks for both provider, patients during entire visit, and not allowing family members into the clinic or store area, unless “masked”….

  2. I just misplaced my 2 upper front false teeth (on a retainer). I know, I know. I’m still gonna keep looking for sure….but, if I don’t find ‘em……? I know it’s not an urgent health importance, if you have time, lemme know what dentists think, please. Thanks.

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