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Northeast Michigan dentists take precautions to treat patients

News Photo by Julie Riddle Registered dental hygienist Katie Jack cleans a patient’s mouth at an Alpena dental practice on Tuesday.

ALPENA — As COVID-19 infection counts rise across the state and nation, many people are doing their best to stay away from other people’s mouths.

Dentists, on the other hand, dive right in.

Like other health care workers, dentists, dental hygienists, and other dental care workers put their own health on the line as they get up close and personal with people who may carry the coronavirus that’s sickened roughly 1,300 Northeast Michiganders since the pandemic hit Michigan in March.

With precautions in place, and after a lengthy shutdown earlier this year, dental workers in the Alpena area and elsewhere are forging forward, asking patients to remove their masks and open wide.

When a dental practice in downtown Alpena reopened after closing for three months because of a state order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, dentist David Beatty asked his staff what they needed to do to feel safe on the job.

At first, he worried about treating people who had been downstate or who he knew had been in large groups, Beatty said.

“Now, it doesn’t matter where you’re from,” he said. “It’s up here.”

The staff, like that at other local dental offices, developed a rigorous safety protocol.

Patients’ temperature and blood oxygen levels are taken as soon as they walk in the door. Staff members wear full protective equipment — including two masks and a face shield, along with gloves and gown — that’s changed between each patient.

When the spit flies — and, in a dentist’s office, it definitely flies — there’s not much that can be done to stop it, so protective gear and thorough cleaning is essential, said Katie Jack, registered dental hygienist at Beatty’s practice.

Hygienists avoid using a water-powered tool that creates a fine spray laced with saliva. When it’s necessary to use the device, staff place a cone around the patient’s face to contain as much spray as possible.

Rooms are mopped, cleaned, and aired out for 20 minutes after each use, and new air purifiers hum gently as staff work.

With the new cleaning routine taking extra time, staff have to work diligently to keep up with the daily schedule, Jack said.

Working up close to other people’s mouths makes her a little nervous, Jack said.

According to the World Health Organization, the virus that causes COVID-19 is spread through small liquid particles from an infected person’s mouth or nose.

“We’re obviously putting ourselves at risk,” Jack said. “But it’s our duty to take care of our patients.”

Soon after the practice reopened, a patient told Beatty she’d recently been at a large wedding where nobody was masked. Concern about the virus was overblown, she told the doctor.

Minutes later, the woman was weeping. She’d just received a text saying someone at the wedding found out they were infected, Beatty said.

Still, staff members who had been treating the woman went home to their families feeling safe because of the office’s strict safety measures, he said.

The office’s staff take precautions even when not on the job.

She contracted COVID-19 earlier this year, Jack said, and the experience helped her to be even more aware of the need to keep patients safe.

“I wanted to go Black Friday shopping,” Jack said. “But I’m like, nope, I’m not going to put myself in that situation.”

When the office first reopened for business in early summer, Jack guessed the office would encounter a slew of cancellations from people afraid to seek dental care.

For the most part, though, the patients keep coming. She also works at a second office in town that’s seen some cancellations, but, for the most part, people seem to trust that the dentist’s office is a safe place to be, Jack said.

In a study released last month, the American Dental Association said that less than 1% of dentists studied tested positive or probable for coronavirus infection.

A fifth of dentists studied reported experiencing anxiety.

“That’s why we do what we need to do to keep each other safe,” Beatty said. “I always felt safe before this, but now we’ve gone one more degree.”

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