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Fully reopening dental offices is like pulling teeth

Katie Tabeling

First State Dental dentists, Dr. Georgette Binnersley, Dr. D. Michael Gioffre Jr. and Dr. Marissa Schnelle wear extra protective gear, including gowns and face shields, in the “new normal” at their practice. | Photo courtesy of Michael Gioffre Jr.

Delaware dentists are still waiting for the green light from Gov. John Carney to resume regular services, but they’re starting to gradually re-open for urgent business and emergency treatment.

Under Delaware State Dental Society (DSDS) guidance issued during the week of May 6, dental care has been restricted to emergency care and previous conditions that may harm patients. It’s a gradual move, but still regular cleanings and other elective services will have to wait until Delaware embarks on the first phase of the COVID-19 recovery plan.

By limiting operations, general dentists will only treat roughly 30% to 40% of their normal practice, according to the DSDS.

“We certainly want to protect our dentists and our patients, and we have a high, gold standard of care in Delaware,” said DSDS President Cathy Harris. “We simply cannot safely follow all social distancing guidelines and treat the same number of patients in the past.”

Other guidelines, created by the DSDS after consulting the Division of Public Health, suggest offices start screening patients, staggering appointments to limit person to person contact and ensure there’s enough time to disinfect between appointments.

Moving forward to normal operations is still unknown, although some dentist hope it could come within a few weeks.

Dr. Ali Husain of Delaware Orthodontics said it’s been a difficult road the past two months, but all he can do is roll with the punches. He’s been working to get his office ready for social-distancing standards.

“You’d be surprised at how many touch surfaces there are. We had to take out our computer log-in system, take out half the chairs and the magazines in the waiting room, we even have the door open so you can walk in oven mitts,” Husain said.

Since his patient base is mostly children, he’s preparing to have staff walk young patients from cars to the office and back again.

Looking to the future, Husain expects to see a surge in returning patients who are eager to get braces off. To meet it and the rules about staggered appointments, he’s planning to add more office hours.

Dr. Michael Gioffre Jr. of First State Dental saw a direct impact to his services. Before, he would see about 40 patients a day, but after the state’s emergency orders, he went down to one emergency procedure. His office had to furlough most of its staff, although a federal loan made it possible to bring them back.

“Professionally, this is all what we’ve been trained to do. You do what’s necessary, whether that’s tripling your [personal protective equipment] – if you can – or giving yourself time to degown and sanitize,” he said.

Right now, Gioffre wears a N95 mask and face shield for his appointments, a stark contrast with what he used to wear during check-ups. He wonders if it could be the new normal.

Dentists already follow standard precautions for infection control, like sterilizing instruments and disinfecting the rooms. But Harris said that it will be taken a step further with adding extra transmission-based precautions, like the N95 masks.

“I don’t think it’s going to change much with dentists; it’s on the office side you’re going to see the changes,” she said.

While the path forward is full of challenges, some like Husain are undaunted that the dental community can rise to meet it.

“We’re so used to that face-to-face connection with people, but what we’re going through will not make it less personal,” Husain. “We’re resilient, and we’ll get back to it. Just at a slower pace.”

-Katie Tabeling


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