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Dental office reopenings likely on the horizon, but don’t count on a timely appointment

Dentists still dealing with PPE shortage, and will have to take other precautions to keep everyone safe 

Even after Ontario dentists are given the go-ahead to open offices to regular services again, patients will likely have to wait longer to get an appointment.

In mid-March, the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario gave a directive strongly recommended dentists provide emergency services only because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Although some emergency dental surgery has been done here in Sudbury during the pandemic, most dental issues are currently being treated with prescriptions phoned into the pharmacy.

Sudbury dentist Dr. Roch St. Aubin said dental offices in some parts of Canada and the United States have already been allowed to fully re-open, and his guess is the same thing will happen in Ontario within the next few weeks.

He said it would be “pretty difficult to imagine” the dental college allowing a return to regular dentistry while a state of emergency — now extended until June 2 — is still in place in Ontario.

But once dentists are up and running again, there are a number of factors that will make it much more difficult to get a timely appointment at your dental office.

The most obvious is that by the time dentists re-open, they will have mostly been off for at least two-and-a-half months.

“There’s definitely going to be a backlog,” said St. Aubin, who has been practising dentistry since 1986, and sits on the board of directors of the Ontario Dental Association. “There’s no question.”

Then there’s a myriad of logistical challenges associated with ensuring patients and staff are kept safe with the pandemic still ongoing.

One of the most pressing is the lack of personal protective equipment available, as dental office staff are going to have to suit up with N95 masks and other enhanced PPE for many dental surgeries.

St. Aubin said his office has already been rationing its PPE for the few emergency cases it deals with.

Another Sudbury dentist, Dr. Nathan Grebe, who has been doing much of the emergency dental surgery for patients in the area during the pandemic, said he’s also had difficulty tracking down PPE.

Even when he’s been able to find it, he pays a premium price, and has had to pay customs duties on top of that — he especially takes exception to the custom duties.

“We’re using all our personal protective equipment — we’re burning through it,” Grebe said in an interview with at the end of April. “I’m working hard at acquiring new equipment over time, and I’m paying a premium for it.”

He said it isn’t as if he’s been making a lot of money on the work he’s been doing, either, as these are emergency surgeries just to get people out of pain, not expensive restorative dentistry.

“We’re keeping Health Sciences North from being overloaded,” Grebe said.

St. Aubin said he’s hopeful PPE will become more available over time as more companies ramp up production of these supplies. 

Because of COVID-19, dentists will also be able to see less patients in a day, as they’re going to have to leave operating rooms empty for half an hour or an hour between patients, and meticulously clean every surface.

St. Aubin explains that the virus spreads through air particles — or aerosols — and using equipment such as dental drills causes these aerosols.

Some dentists are taking advantage of the shutdown to do renovations to enclose their operating rooms and install air filtration systems.

As for hygienists, St. Aubin said they will likely still be able to do their jobs, but without the water jet devices for cleaning people’s teeth, as those again would cause aerosols.

He said dental offices are going to have to limit the number of people in the office at one time — no more socializing in the waiting room — and also limit the number of patients seen in one day.

“So do the math — it’s going to be slow recovery, no question, even if we get the PPE,” St. Aubin said. “We’re anxious, but being very cautious about this to be protective of everybody — us, our staff and our patients."


Heidi Ulrichsen

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