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Dental care can’t wait for COVID-19

It's hard to examine teeth over Zoom.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, The New York Times reported that dentists were among the workers at highest risk of exposure. As the world was trying to understand this new disease, leaders at University of Utah School of Dentistry (SOD) knew they had their work cut out for them. If they wished to continue providing patient care, training students, and conducting research, they would need to go to great lengths to protect those for whom they were responsible.

“Our dean [Wyatt R. Hume, DDS, PhD] was very proactive,” says Lisa Cannon, MPH, the SOD’s associate director of clinical affairs. “He put together a safety committee that included himself, Dr. Jeri Bullock, and Dr. Melodie Weller. The three of them determined a phased tier plan that the school could follow. He also appointed Dr. Bullock as the school’s chief SARS-CoV-2 safety liaison and gave her the final say in all safety decisions.”

The plan integrates direction from the state to help determine how many patients can be treated. It also enhances personal protective equipment protocols, requiring gowns, face shields, and fitted respirator masks. HEPA filters in clinical spaces scrub the air every ten minutes, and regular COVID testing is performed, including pre-procedural testing for patients.

“That combination fortunately allowed us to resume all of our normal procedures,” Cannon explains. “We were actually among only a few dental schools in the nation that were able to really see patients early in the pandemic because of our pre-procedural testing.”

In addition to clinical work, the SOD recognized the need to continue educating students. While much of the University of Utah’s coursework went online due to the pandemic, there was no good way to simulate in-clinic training over a Zoom call. Increased physical distance during simulation and technique labs along with creative teaching techniques have helped.

“We test all students in clinical or simulation settings every two weeks, as well as patient-facing staff and faculty. Patients are tested three days before their procedure,” says Cannon. “That seems to really prevent the spread of the disease and has allowed us to catch anyone who is potentially COVID-positive before they enter our buildings.”

Cannon continues, “I was actually really worried about patients not wanting to come in because they’d have to go through all these extra hoops of getting a COVID test, but patients have been very responsive to it. I think it’s actually helped them feel safe to come to our building knowing that everybody is tested.”

The ability to keep operating at a high level is especially important to the SOD’s patient population, which is largely comprised of people from underserved communities. Serving the underserved is one of the SOD’s primary missions. Thankfully, all of the precautions are paying off. The dental school continues to serve patients, educate students, and engage in research, all major wins during such a tumultuous year.

“I think it’s been a stressful time for everybody,” says Cannon, “but I’m really impressed with our resiliency and that we’ve been able to just work through this.”