Concern for dental safety as businesses and health care officials plan to reopen Tennessee’s economy

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JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As businesses across the state of Tennessee anticipate the economy reopening after April 30, dental practices are concerned about keeping patients and employees safe.

One dental group in the Tri-Cities is working to address the issue.

Business for Blue Ridge Dental Group has slowed down to about 1/30th of the number of patients it normally sees.

In order to follow guidelines from the American Dental Association (ADA) and the Tennessee Dental Association, the dental group is only available to patients with emergency needs.

The rest are met through tele-dentistry.

“We’re been affected dramatically and our patients have been affected dramatically,” owner of Blue Ridge Dental Group, Dr. Mike Mefford, said.

Mefford said he and his team have been utilizing tele-dentistry pretty heavily since the crisis began.

“I wouldn’t have even said I would have thought about using now, but we’ve been able to provide some counseling comfort to patients, and some diagnoses by remote, through video conferencing,” Mefford said. “It’s been a big help, connecting with patients. I’ve enjoyed help connecting with some of my patients that way. There’s the obvious downside of having a hard time seeing a tooth through a computer screen but at least getting a patient’s history, understanding from them, what their problem is and trying to address it as best we can has been very helpful.”

Seventy-six percent of dentists polled by the ADA reported their dental practices have closed due to COVID-19 and are only seeing emergency patients only. Nineteen percent of dentists polled have closed completely.

“Really, it’s been our mission for our community to really try to keep patients out of the emergency room,” Mefford said. “So, we’ve been mainly treating patients with significant pain, infections, swelling. Types of situations that may drive someone to the emergency room.”

He said the 16 employees in the building, 13 are temporarily laid off.

“We’ve had some hiccups regarding eligibility for unemployment so, very much on our mind is the safety and welfare of our team. Without them, we wouldn’t be anything,” Mefford explained.

Now that there has been some clarity on when businesses can reopen, Mefford says they may reconsider looking into getting a Paycheck Protection Program loan or some other type of relief since revenue has decreased.

“For most dentists, it wasn’t a great fit and I can’t speak for all of my colleagues, but the timing window in which it had to be spent, created a lot of uncertainty relative to the guidance that our state and national agencies have provided, along with Governor Lee’s mandate towards emergency-only treatment, that not knowing how long that the pandemic may last, that our jobs may be affected. We weren’t confident that we may utilize the program within the 8-week window that the funds needed to be spent,” he explained.

Looking ahead to re-opening day, Mefford said there is a lingering concern about aerosol production inside the practice, since spitting and coughing is common in a standard dental practice.

“There the concern’s about the masks, in particular, so we’re going to use the highest level masks that we can,” he said. “We’re going to be using face shields. There’s some guidance regarding gowns. We’ll try to use things aren’t recommended. We’ll try to go beyond those recommendations, maybe with head coverings, foot coverings. We’re investigating the possibility of HEPA filtration.”

Mefford said they are working on making sure they have extra personal protective equipment for team members when they fully return to business. He is hopeful this will be as soon as Tennessee Governor Bill lee’s executive order expires on April 30.

Continuing coverage of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

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