Is it safe to go to the dentist? What doctors are doing to prevent the spread of the coronavirus

America’s dental offices are reopening after months of handling only emergencies. All 50 states now allow routine dental care, like teeth cleanings and cavity fillings, but dentistry is considered one of the highest risk professions for the coronavirus.

“If someone asked me in January, ‘Hey, ever think about taking three months off from dentistry?’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah, when I retire.’ It was never on my radar that we would have to shut down for this long,” Dr. Peter Shatz, the chairman of the Georgia Dental Association’s COVID-19 Innovation Task Force, told CBS News senior medical correspondent Dr. Tara Narula. 

He’s one of the people trying to help dentists navigate complicated guidance from the state, OSHA and CDC on how to reopen safely.

“We were stood up to help our members better understand the complexities of the coronavirus … from science, research, availability of PPE,” Shatz said.

About 90% of dental offices in the U.S. were open for elective care by the first week of June, but it won’t be business as usual.

“So the traditional waiting for your doctor’s appointment inside the reception area is gone,” Shatz said. “We send a team member out into the parking lot actually to shoot a temperature, make sure that they’re not experiencing any illness.”

What makes dentistry so high risk isn’t just proximity to patients’ mouths. It’s also the nature of the procedures themselves.

Using a high-speed handpiece to do fillings or root canals could aerosolize viral particles if they are present, said Dr. Kirk Norbo, who co-chaired a COVID-19 task force for the American Dental Association.

“We’re hand scaling now the teeth, rather than using the Cavitron or the ultrasonic scalers … to create as safe as an environment as we can,” Norbo said.

The CDC recently updated its guidelines to address routine dental care, stressing the importance of PPE, allowing downtime between patients and prioritizing emergency care.   

But a number of hygienists told CBS News they feel it’s still too soon.

“I’m telling all of my friends and family, do not go to the dentist. It’s probably the worst, most dangerous place you can go right now just because of the nature of the work with the aerosols,” Sara Mercier said.

Shatz and Norbo disagree and worry delaying care could lead to other health issues.

“The biggest risk in dentistry is uncontrolled infections and those could lead to systemic disease, can aggravate underlying heart problems,” Shatz said.

Norbo said he thinks it’s safe to go to the dentist. 

“The biggest thing I’d say is we’re here for you,” Norbo said. “We’re back in business, we feel like we’ve got a safe environment for our patients to return to.” 

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    California doctors’ dubious coronavirus claims condemned by health experts

    A widely shared local television video of last week’s news conference, which was posted on YouTube, reached more than 5 million views and was amplified by Elon Musk and Fox News, where Dr. Dan Erickson and Dr. Artin Massihi appeared on primetime shows two nights in a row.

    The video has since been taken down by YouTube for violating the platform’s policy on misinformation, a YouTube spokesperson said.

    The doctors, who are not epidemiologists and who own and operate urgent care centers in the Bakersfield area, held the news conference on April 22 to share their conclusions about the results of 5,213 coronavirus tests at their clinics, extrapolating their findings to the California population as a whole.

    “Do we need to still shelter in place? Our answer is emphatically no. Do we need businesses to be shut down? Emphatically no. Do we need to test them and get them back to work? Yes, we do,” Erickson said at the news conference.

    Widespread condemnation

    The comments and conclusions of the doctors drew widespread condemnation from health officials and medical experts.

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    “There is a lot to object to from a scientific point of view,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist, told CNN. He said one big problem is that the doctors made estimates based on their clinics’ clients who were tested, not a sampling of the general population.

    “What these doctors are doing is corrupting the process from the start to make it seem like they are doing an honest policy analysis,” added Noymer, who is an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at the University of California, Irvine.
    The video also prompted the American College of Emergency Physicians and American Academy of Emergency Medicine to issue a forceful joint statement on Monday calling the pair’s claims “reckless and untested musings” that “are inconsistent with current science and epidemiology regarding COVID-19.”

    “As owners of local urgent care clinics, it appears these two individuals are releasing biased, non-peer reviewed data to advance their personal financial interests without regard for the public’s health,” the statement read, “COVID-19 misinformation is widespread and dangerous. Members of ACEP and AAEM are first-hand witnesses to the human toll that COVID-19 is taking on our communities. ACEP and AAEM strongly advise against using any statements of Drs. Erickson and Massihi as a basis for policy and decision making.”

    Health officials in Kern County, where Bakersfield is located, also said they disagreed with the claims made by Erickson and Massihi.

    “In our ongoing effort to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19 on our residents and healthcare system, we continue to adhere to the guidance issued by Governor Newsom regarding the stay at home order,” a Kern County health official said in a statement to CNN.

    Erickson and Massihi did not return CNN requests for comment.

    Receptive audience

    At a time when stuck-at-home Americans are yearning to return to their pre-pandemic lives, the doctors have found a receptive, even high-profile audience.

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