When lockdown was announced in early 2020, dental practices across the country were forced to shut their doors and cancel almost all of their appointments. For staff still required to carry out emergency procedures, there was a fear that they too could be at risk of infection.
Staff in practice are working directly with patient mouths and are therefore technically more at risk than those in other professions. COVID-19 spreads through saliva produced when one coughs, sneezes or talks and the trouble with this virus is that an individual does not even have to be unwell to pass it on. This makes it much harder to determine when it is or isn’t safe to carry out procedures.
Luckily, practices have their control measures down to a tee. Exposure to the virus is much more likely to happen during travel to or from your appointment since dental staff have such rigorous procedures in place. It would be very unlikely that a patient would catch anything from an appointment since all equipment is sterilised between uses and surgeries are kept spotless, even more so than normal.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the guidance was clear, minimise all face to face patient contact, continue to provide remote consultations where appropriate and wear appropriate PPE. The effort was focussed on containing the virus and maintaining control at a time where we did not yet have a vaccine or established test.
Thanks to the hard work of staff up and down the country, those standards were maintained and risks of transmission were low. Studies also suggested that patients are at no greater risk of COVID-19 when having a dental procedure than they are drinking a glass of water at a practice. The aerosols that are produced by dental procedures are also unlikely to contain any viral material making transmission unlikely.
Practices have been implementing the national guidance to ensure that the risk of transmission remains low in their practice. From social distancing to enhanced PPE, these measures have allowed practice to continue despite rising cases in the community. Dental staff were also offered their vaccinations early on in the programme to ensure they were protected and less likely to transmit infection.
Effective planning and monitoring of infections in patients and their bubbles also meant that staff could prevent unnecessary transmission and protect other patients from exposure. Ultimately, the biggest change for staff was the change in PPE. Rigorous procedures were put in place to protect both staff and their clients and prevent transmission between appointments.
Whether out of a lack of available appointments or a genuine fear of exposure to the virus, people have been avoiding the dentist despite the fact we are starting to return to normality. After what has been a difficult 18 months, many have found themselves unable to afford treatment or placed on excruciatingly long waiting lists. This pause in care will undoubtedly worsen their dental health and cause long-lasting damage and inequality across the country.
Whether delaying important procedures or eating and drinking more in lockdown, the state of dental health has been largely impacted and the effects of acquired behaviours as a result of the stress of the pandemic. These effects could be seen for months, even years, to come in both children and adults.