08:59 AM

Helping Patients Understand Infection Control During COVID-19

As states begin reopening for business, dental offices across the country will begin to see more patients. And like everything else right now, the patient and provider experience will likely be very different than we remember.

Dental providers are trying to navigate evolving CDC and ADA guidelines while also balancing state re-opening mandates and patient demand. Dental professionals are working hard to implement new infection control procedures to ensure that care is provided in the safest way possible for patients and their colleagues — especially since dentists, dental assistants and hygienists are among the professions with the highest risk for exposure to COVID-19.

Providers are adapting to new procedures and protocols, but the experience may seem different or confusing to a patient. Most people understand that COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets from infected people who could be asymptomatic. But patients may not realize that dental procedures, especially those that generate aerosols, create dispersed droplets and increase risks of viral transmission.

So, as your state begins to reopen and starts allowing dental appointments beyond urgent and emergency care, patients with routine needs may expect a prophylaxis that may include ultrasonic scalers and polishing with a handpiece. While this would be acceptable under normal circumstances, in the world of COVID-19 use of ultrasonic scalers and handpieces would unnecessarily increase risk for transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

This recent DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement webinar shared data from the New York Times that examined workers who face the greatest Coronavirus risk, indicating that hygienists are at the 100th percentile both in terms of exposure to the disease as well as proximity to the patient—and dentists and dental assistants had similar, albeit slightly lower, risk. Traditionally, experts say droplet transmission happens within three feet. And, while it’s reasonable to assume the greatest risk is in the same room and in nearby open bays, it’s important to note that subsequent patients may also be at greater risk from any residual virus. This is because the spray of droplets produced from aerosolized procedures can linger in the air for three hours, and on surfaces up to three days.

We will continue to learn and better understand pandemic response developments, but it’s clear we are a long way from the way dental care was provided before the current national health care crisis. As states begin to lift closures of dental offices, it’s vital we create health care environments to minimize risks that will last long beyond this crisis. Good communication with patients about the necessary infection control measures, and changes to treatment provided, will help everyone understand why a visit to the dentist will seem so different.

For information and resources for patients, the ADA’s Mouth Healthy outlines what to expect when returning to the dental office, including explaining treatments that should be considered an emergency. Dentists can share this information with patients on their website, social media and any other direct communications with patients.

For more information and resources on infection control, two recent webinars on infection control and preventive care from the DentaQuest Partnership for Oral Health Advancement discuss how COVID-19 can be transmitted and what providers can do to ensure they’re keeping themselves, their staff and their patients safe.

DentaQuest’s learning module Infection Control and Preventive Care During a National Health Care Crisis is also available online and offers 1.5 continuing education credits.

Dentists and patients can also always refer to the latest CDC guidance for infection control. Resources from OSHA provide guidance for dentistry workers and employers. And the ADA offers several resources, including a toolkit on returning to work.