Dentists face unique challenges to reopen

Published: Jun. 18, 2020 at 3:04 PM EDT
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"If someone asked me in January, 'Hey, you ever think about taking three months off from dentistry?' And I'd be like, yeah, when I retire. It was never on my radar that we would have to shut down for this long," Dr. Peter Shatz said.

Shatz is the chair of the Georgia Dental Association's COVID-19 Innovation Task Force. He's one of the people trying to help dentists navigate complicated guidance from the state, OSHA and the CDC on how to reopen safely.

"We were stood up to help our members better understand the complexities of the coronavirus," he said. "From science, research, availability of PPE."

Some 90% of dental offices in the U.S. were open for elective care by the first week of June. But it won't be business as usual.

"So the traditional waiting for your doctor's appointment inside-- the reception area is gone," Shatz said. "We send a team member out into the parking lot actually to shoot a temperature, make sure that they're not experiencing any illness."

What makes dentistry so high risk isn't just proximity to patients' mouths, it's the nature of the procedures themselves. Things like fillings and root canals can aerosolize the virus particles if they are present.

"We're hand-scaling now the teeth, rather than using the Cavitron or the ultrasonic scalers," said Dr. Kirk Norbo, who co-chaired a COVID task force for the American Dental Association. "To create as safe as an environment as we can."

The CDC recently updated its guidelines to address routine dental care, stressing the importance of PPE, allowing downtime between patients and prioritizing emergency care.

But a number of hygienists CBS News spoke with, like Sara Mercier, feel it's still too soon.

"I'm telling all of my friends and family-- do not go to the dentist," Mercier said. "It's probably the worst, most dangerous place you can go right now just because of the nature of the work with the aerosols."

Drs. Shatz and Norbo disagree and worry delaying care could lead to other health issues.

"The biggest risk in dentistry is uncontrolled infections and those could lead to systemic disease, can aggravate underlying heart problems," Shatz said.

"I think absolutely, it's safe," Norbo said. "The biggest thing I'd say is-- is we're here for ya'... We're back in business, we feel like we've got a safe environment for our patients to return to."