Without a doubt, dentistry is among the more intimate health professions. Patients must keep their mouths wide open as dentists and hygienists poke around inside with mirrors, scalers, probes and, until recently, drills.
But drills and other power equipment, including ultrasonic scalers and air polishers, can produce suspended droplets or aerosol spray that may hang in the air, potentially carrying the coronavirus, which could endanger patients and staff members.
As a result, dental offices operate in a markedly different way than they did pre-pandemic. Since reopening last spring, they have been following federal guidelines and industry group recommendations aimed at curtailing the spread of the virus.
And while vaccination offers fresh promise, there are new worries about more contagious variants as well as a monthslong timetable for rolling out the vaccines to the general public.
Dentists and hygienists generally protect themselves with face shields, masks, gowns, gloves and hair covers resembling shower caps. They have set aside aerosol-spewing power equipment; hygienists instead rely on traditional hand tools to remove patients’ plaque and tartar.
Under the new practices, patients typically get called a few days before visits and are asked whether they have any coronavirus symptoms. They may be told to wait in their cars until they can be seen. Their temperatures may be taken before entering a dental office, and they must wear masks, except during treatment, all measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dental offices also look different now. Many dentists allow only one patient in the office at a time. At Exceptional Dentistry on Staten Island in New York, the waiting area is bereft of magazines, and plexiglass shields have been installed at the front desk, said Dr. Craig Ratner, owner of the office in the Tottenville neighborhood.
And visits may last longer, because scaling by hand is more laborious than applying ultrasonic scalers, and because some patients have built-up tartar, stains and plaque on their teeth after delaying their regular visits because of the pandemic, Dr. Ratner said.