Dentists are feeling financial pain after reopening

Erika Beras Jun 30, 2020
Heard on: Marketplace
Dentists perform a procedure on a patient in London in May. Dental offices are spending tens of thousands on extra personal protective gear during the COVID-19 pandemic. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Dentists are feeling financial pain after reopening

Erika Beras Jun 30, 2020
Dentists perform a procedure on a patient in London in May. Dental offices are spending tens of thousands on extra personal protective gear during the COVID-19 pandemic. Leon Neal/Getty Images

James White of Traverse City, Michigan, was supposed to go in for a filling and a cleaning on March 26. Because of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, that didn’t happen. So when Michigan reopened, he made a new appointment. 

“They said if I cancel on this one, it’s going to be until the fall before I can get back in,” he said. So he decided to go, despite his anxiety. “Anything that did not look right to me, if it didn’t look safe. I was just going to walk out. Cancel.” 

He was looking for cleanliness, masks, a temperature test. But with the COVID-19 pandemic, some dentists are going further than that.

“Air purifiers and sneeze guards,” lists Sally Cram, a periodontist in Washington, D.C. “I’m in the process of getting a washer and dryer installed in my office so that my staff can wash their scrub uniforms every day.”

Cram had to search out more than $20,000 worth of personal protective equipment for her staff and office.

Meanwhile, she’s seeing about half of the patients she used to see. Dentists are now staggering appointments, screening patients and giving them hydrogen peroxide rinses before they even get in the chair.

After patients get out of the chair, the air in the examining room is full of the aerosol particles that have come out of their mouths during the procedures — particles that can infect others if the patient is sick.

“So, sort of like a farmer who lets a field go fallow for a season, we’re going to let our room remain idle, which we never used to do, you know, for the air exchange to happen and for the aerosols to settle out,” said Shatz, a periodontist in the Atlanta, Georgia, suburbs.

And every one of those patient visits is costing dentists more money. Instead of a 50 cent surgical mask, now it’s a $10 N95 mask, plus a fresh hair cap and a gown over scrubs. 

“All of a sudden, I’m coming at you in, you know, half a spacesuit with a face shield on,” said pediatric dentist Jeff Kahl in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

The last time dentistry was upended this way was in the early ’80s with HIV. 

“We were extracting teeth and doing all kinds of dental procedures with no gloves,” recalled Purcellville, Virginia, dentist Kirk Norbo of his early years. “Very often no masks.”

These current changes come after dentists spent a few months not seeing any patients. But periodontist Sally Cram said she was seeing plenty of bills.

“Our rent kept going, our utilities kept going, you know, our phone, our internet, all those things. Insurance.”

As a small business owner, she got a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government, but she said it wasn’t enough to cover all of her expenses. 

And if she has to shut down her practice again, Cram said she might call it a day. 

“At this point in my career where I am, it will be hard for me to actually say yes, I’m going to come back. As I’ve talked to some of my peers, some of them are saying, you know what, if we get shut down again, I’m really just gonna sell my practice and be done. It’s a lot.”

But for now, her practice is open, and she said plenty of patients are making appointments.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

Are states ready to roll out COVID-19 vaccines?

Claire Hannan, executive director of the nonprofit Association of Immunization Managers, which represents state health officials, said states have been making good progress in their preparations. And we could have several vaccines pretty soon. But states still need more funding, she said. Hannan doesn’t think a lack of additional funding would hold up distribution initially, but it could cause problems down the road. “It’s really worrisome that Congress may not pass funding or that there’s information circulating saying that states don’t need additional funding,” she said.

How is the service industry dealing with the return of coronavirus restrictions?

Without another round of something like the Paycheck Protection Program, which kept a lot of businesses afloat during the pandemic’s early stages, the outlook is bleak for places like restaurants. Some in the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, only got one week of indoor dining back before cases rose and restrictions went back into effect. Restaurant owners are revamping their business models in an effort to survive while waiting to see if they’ll be able to get more aid.

How are hospitals handling the nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases?

As the pandemic surges and more medical professionals themselves are coming down with COVID, nearly 1 in 5 hospitals in the country report having a critical shortage of staff, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services. One of the knock-on effects of staff shortages is that people who have other medical needs are being asked to wait.

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