Dentists in Illinois can now fully reopen, with extra COVID-19 precautions. But there’s a major PPE shortage.
After weeks of only treating emergencies, dentists in Illinois can now resume offering routine dental care, though there will be changes to office visits to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Yet many dentists say they’re struggling to find adequate personal protective equipment amid a national shortage — a potential roadblock to fully reopening.
“N95 masks and gowns are extremely hard to get, as are suitable face shields,” said Dr. Terri Tiersky, president of the Chicago Dental Society, who practices in north suburban Skokie. “We are all trying very hard to return to our patients, but we must do so safely, and we cannot do that without access to adequate amounts of the proper PPE.”
Dentists and hygienists are exposed to “as much or more aerosol spray than any other health care professional, but we seemingly haven’t been considered essential when it comes to obtaining vitally necessary PPE," she added.
The Illinois Department of Public Health issued a new guidance permitting dentists to resume full dental care starting last Monday, while recommending extra precautions to limit potential exposure to COVID-19. The health department said further delaying nonemergency dental treatments could result in exacerbated health problems like “patient complications, poorer prognoses, as well as the need for more complex and costly corrective oral and dental care.”
Although the state has permitted dental offices to stay open throughout the pandemic, dental work had been limited to emergencies and urgent oral health issues — such as an infection or a knocked-out tooth — in part to avoid these cases from contributing to overcrowding at local hospitals.
In March, the Chicago-based American Dental Association and the Illinois State Dental Society recommended that dentists suspend elective procedures to help keep workers and patients safe, as well as preserve PPE that’s been in short supply across the country.
But after monitoring the virus for weeks, state health officials now anticipate a “decrease in the burden of COVID-19 illness” toward the end of May, according to the agency’s most recent guidance for dentists.
While many dental workers are eager to fully reopen, procuring protective gear remains a challenge. In a recent nationwide survey, more than 17% said they had no face shields and more than 25% said they had no supply of gowns, according to the American Dental Association. The association also has appealed to Congress for help in obtaining appropriate protective gear for dental practices.
Dr. Stacey Van Scoyoc, vice president of the Illinois State Dental Society, said a visit to the dentist might be very different during the pandemic. Her practice in Bloomington has begun screening patients for COVID-19 symptoms by phone a day or two before the appointment; then there’s a second patient screening the day of the appointment, which includes a temperature check, she said.
Her waiting room is now empty — no chairs or magazines — and patients are asked to wait in their cars until the appointment begins. Everyone in the office must wear a mask, including the patient, except when work is being done in the patient’s mouth.
She added that no relatives or friends are allowed to accompany the patient.
“We’re keeping as many people out of our office as possible,” she said.
While Van Scoyoc said she has a backlog of patients seeking care, she’s initially prioritizing those with more immediate dental concerns. Regular cleanings will resume in June when her practice’s hygienists, who now have child care constraints due to school closures, are expected to return to work.
“We’re starting with patients with a higher need — sometime patients who chipped a tooth or a filling fell out, but it wasn’t painful or an urgent need,” she said.
The Illinois dentist’s group said its experts have been working with the state health department on the new guidance, noting that patients likely have been forgoing typical dental care for weeks, “which may cause their oral health to deteriorate.”
Angie Leventis Lourgos
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