Dentists are treating some patients on a case-by-case basis after the American Dental Association advised canceling non-essential appointments

By Julie Mazziotta
April 21, 2020 01:35 PM
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dentist holding angled mirror and hook while examining patient
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Around the country, most dentist offices are closed, and for good reason. While there are still many unknowns about the new coronavirus, COVID-19, the main form of transmission is clear — the virus can easily spread through respiratory droplets from a person’s mouth or nose, putting dentists and their patients at a high risk.

On March 16, the American Dental Association issued a recommendation advising dentists to stop performing any non-essential procedures and restrict appointments to “emergency dental care.”

“Concentrating on emergency dental care will allow us to care for our emergency patients and alleviate the burden that dental emergencies would place on hospital emergency departments,” the ADA said in a statement.

Most dentists have closed their offices and canceled upcoming appointments, but if they haven’t, patients should refrain from going in for routine cleanings and other non-essential procedures.

Dr. Ira Levinsky, a general dentist in Cleveland, Ohio, closed his practice on March 12 and canceled his appointments through May 1.

“Everyone was totally understanding,” he tells PEOPLE. “They all realized that this was serious and they weren’t looking to come in, anyway.”

Levinsky and other dentists have canceled routine cleanings, cavity fillings, implants, crown fittings and gum treatments, among other typical procedures. But if patients have an emergency or are in severe pain, they are ready and available to help.

The first step is to call. Levinsky said of the few patients who have reached out with dentistry issues over the last month, he starts by “trying to triage it and figure out what exactly is going on” over voice or video calls.

“It’s been teledentistry,” he says.

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In most cases, Levinsky can quickly identify the issue just from hearing their symptoms, but he’s had at least one patient send photos of their issue.

“We know — if someone says that they drank something hot and they needed to drink something cold for the pain to go away: root canal. If someone says they woke up in the middle of the night with throbbing pain: root canal. If someone says there’s swelling at the end of the tooth — these are all slam-dunk root canals,” he says.

For anyone in need of root canal, those specialists, called endodontists, are still open for emergencies, along with oral surgeons who can take out infected teeth and periodontists who can treat severe gum infections.

But many dental procedures, including orthodontia, can be delayed for now, or temporarily fixed at home. Levinsky has helped a few patients smooth out sharp teeth in the last few weeks.

“One person said he had a tooth that felt sharp, so I suggested he take a nail file [to it] and he tried that and said it feels fine,” he says. “I’ve actually told a couple people to take a nail file or emery board to a tooth that felt sharp and they’ve been successful.”

And Levinsky doesn’t expect that patients without emergency dental needs will have any major issues, besides some plaque build-up, once dentist offices are open again. He is worried, though, about his staff, whom he’s had to furlough. Levinsky is looking into getting a Payback Protection Program (PPP) loan that was part of the COVID-19 stimulus package to help small business, but the fund is already empty.

As Levinsky and dentists across the country wait to see when it will be safe to open again, he says that patients should use the time at home to keep their mouths as clean as possible.

“People should floss twice a day and brush four times a day to keep their gums healthy.”

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