While I have never minded going to the dentist, I understand dental anxiety is very real. Someone poking around in one of the most intimate parts of your body can warrant feelings of discomfort or lack of control for anyone. Now add on the extra obstacle of a looming pandemic virus that can be introduced through the exact body entryway that the dentist is poking around in? Not exactly a quarantine dream.
Here’s the thing about dentists, though – they’re licensed medical professionals who know what they’re doing, and know how to put you at ease. They know how to take protective precautions to ensure their patients’ safety is of utmost priority, as well as their own. This fact is why I felt comfortable returning to the dentist this July for my semi-annual teeth cleaning at Dr. Jeff Rappaport’s LAVAAN Dental Spa in West Village, New York City. Yes, NYC, as in one of the cities hardest hit by the pandemic, where dentists had to close down their practices for months to non-emergency procedures.
But, it was time for my semi-annual checkup, and as someone who values oral health and smile appearance, I wanted to ensure all my chompers were healthy, strong, and cavity-free. Additionally, while working at quip I’ve learned that many health issues actually start in the mouth – and that timely cleanings help catch concerns early, before they can spread to other systems in the body and wreak havoc.
So, I strapped on my reusable mask, threw my hand sanitizer in my bag, and headed to the dentist’s office. Here’s what was the same, what looked a bit different, and what you can expect should you choose to return to your dentist in the foreseeable future.
Upon walking in (mask on, of course), I was greeted by two friendly hygienists wearing two layers of masks, a coat of PPE, and goggles. There was hand sanitizer on the counter, which I quickly jumped on since I had just touched bike and door handles. They asked to take my temperature from a digital thermometer that was held in front of my forehead. Thankfully, I passed this first test, and was prompted to answer 3 critical questions:
Had I been around anyone who was showing symptoms or had tested positive for COVID-19 in the last 14 days?
Had I experienced any symptoms in the last 14 days (cough, fever, aches, out of breath)?
Had I tested positive in the last 14 days — even with no symptoms?
I could answer “no” to all of the above so I was cleared to proceed.
If you could answer yes to any of those questions, do yourself and the dental pros a favor and stay home for 14 days, as exposure to any of the three scenarios warranted a “THOU SHALL NOT PASS” to the dental chair.
In the Chair
My hygienist showed me to my room, and I noticed the patient chair was draped in a layer of thin plastic, which the staff mentioned is changed out between patients. Once seated, I could take my personal mask off. Each hygienist that came in contact with my open mouth had on a N95 mask covered by a surgical mask, and also wore a plastic face shield and protective goggles. Since hygienists are the dental professionals typically picking at and spraying water and air at your teeth, it made sense that they were the most protected. My actual dentist only wore a respirator mask, however, she wasn’t sticking any power tools in my mouth and just did a double check to make sure everything looked good.
Speaking of power tools, before we got started I asked the hygienists if anything would be different about the cleaning procedure, and they informed me that they would be using hand-scaling (manual tools) and not the ultrasonic power tools to abrase away any plaque. This was a precaution to minimize the amount of aerosol spray from a patient’s mouth, since aerosol particles can linger in a closed room for hours and be inhaled, or land on masks and skin. This seemed to work just fine for the cleaning and deep-groove filling I needed for my teeth, but some patients could be asked to reschedule at a later time if there were any issues discovered during their cleaning that would require power tools to fill or fix.
Another key difference was the length of my appointment. For a new patient, each dental pro needs to scrub their hands and arms, double up on fresh masks, sanitize their face shield and don a new pair of gloves. Due to these new protection procedures, and to allow time for patients to enter and exit their stations, my time in the chair was extended by approximately 15 minutes. This may not seem like a big deal but it means that the staff is seeing fewer patients than normal on a daily basis.
This also means that a SIGNIFICANT amount of PPE (personal protective equipment) is being used per dental professional per day. The hygienists told me they were changing their PPE on average up to 16 times per day. As an extra precaution, the staff is also washing their hands up to 100 times a day, switching into scrubs at the office before any patients enter, and then adding on a protective PPE gown. The PPE gown would be thrown away at the office, and scrubs changed out prior to leaving for the day. The “regular” clothes that they wore home would be placed in the laundry immediately to prevent any potential exposure in their homes. My eco-friendly conscience worried about the waste of extra PPE and cringed at these facts, but I was reassured that I felt very safe from contamination or virus exposure while in the dentist’s office.
Leaving the Office
After my cleaning was complete, I popped my personal mask back on and headed to the front desk for remaining questions and to schedule my next appointment in a distant, hopefully post-pandemic future. The hygienists let me pick their brain on the difficulties and normalities of reopening to treat patients again. Their overall emotion was relief to be back at work and doing what they loved, and to escape quarantine boredom. This was peppered in with concern over patients possibly entering the practice and refusing to comply with the CDC and ADA recommended health protocols, but fortunately they hadn’t had any issues since re-opening.
Leaving the practice, I had a greater appreciation for all dental professionals who keep our teeth and mouths healthy, and their dedication to providing care while managing the COVID-19 risks. If you are due for an appointment or cleaning soon, be sure to call your dentist and ask about the protocols and procedures their practice is following to not only make sure you are safe as a patient, but to ensure you know what you can do to keep your dental staff healthy and protected as well.