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Stress and isolation due to the pandemic are certainly bad for our mental health, but dentists are seeing evidence our oral health is suffering too.

Wochit

Millions of Americans are delaying dental appointments over concerns about coronavirus infection, and that’s likely to trigger increased fees for patients, job cuts for workers and fewer family practices.

When the pandemic began this spring, essentially all dentists temporarily shut down for all but emergency appointments, putting hundreds of thousands of Americans out of work.  While 99% of dentists have reopened, the number of patients visiting offices remains about 20% below usual levels, according to the American Dental Association.

And dentists don’t expect it to improve much more anytime soon despite significant safety measures they’ve rolled outto protect themselves and patients from COVID-19.

Spending on dental care could fall by up to 38% in 2020 and 20% in 2021, the ADA projects. Of dentists surveyed by the trade group, more than 46% said their patient volume was down at least 15% from usual levels during the week of Oct. 5.

Dr. Linda Rasubala and Dental Assistant Olga Kushch treat a patient in Eastman Dental’s Howitt Urgent Dental Care clinic. (Photo: Keith Bullis, Eastman Institute for Oral Health)

About 15% to 20% of regular dental patients say “they’re not going to go back to the dentist until there’s a vaccine or a proven treatment,” said Marko Vujicic, chief economist of the ADA.

“They’re a segment of the population that’s very cautious, and they’re waiting for COVID to pass, so to speak,” Vujicic said. “They’re simply not returning to usual activities, period.”

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Katia Lee is among them.

Lee, a self-employed professional photographer in Columbia, South Carolina, hasn’t gone to the dentist since before the pandemic began, in part because she doesn’t want to risk getting infected and passing it to her 76-year-old mother.

“The practice I go to, they are lovely, don’t get me wrong – I really like my dentist and my dental hygienist,” she said. “But I know at least half of them have families – that means you’re trusting not just them but their kids, their husbands, that’s why it’s so scary. I have to trust everybody else to keep myself safe.”

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In August, the World Health Organization angered dentists by advising that “routine non-essential oral health care – which usually includes oral health check-ups, dental cleanings and preventive care – be delayed until there has been sufficient reduction in COVID-19 transmission rates from community transmission to cluster cases or according to official recommendations at national, sub-national or local level.”

The ADA said it “respectfully yet strongly disagrees” with the WHO’s guidance, pointing to numerous safety measures dentists have set up to reduce the risk of transmission, steps advised by the Centers for Disease Control and