Confusion Over When Dentists Can See Patients Again

NBC 7 Responds heard from dentists frustrated by a lack of communication about when they can reopen

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As California begins stage 2 of its reopening strategy, many business owners are preparing to open up their doors. One group still waiting on guidance are dentists.

"I'm only seeing about one to two patients a day compared to before seeing 20 to 30," said Encinitas dentist Scott Holyoak. "We've always felt like we are essential workers and everything that we don't treat is getting worse every day."

On Thursday, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) released new guidance for dental offices. Right now, dentists are allowed to be open to deal with dental emergencies. Thursday's announcement expanded that definition.

"Clinicians should prioritize care that was previously postponed and for those conditions that are likely to lead to dental emergencies if treatment is not provided in a timely manner," reads the letter to dental practitioners.

"I call it giving dentistry the yellow light to go back to work," said Richard Nagy, the president of the California Dental Association. "It's not a green light which means business as usual, it's going back to work, but with caution."

The letter from the CDPH does lay out some guidelines as dental offices begin to see more patients. There is an emphasis on protective gear for workers and sanitation of the office.Dr. Holyoak says dental offices are already held to a high level of cleanliness.

"We already have the distance between our chairs," said Dr. Holyoak. "We clean everything extremely well between patients. I wouldn't want to go to an office, medical or dental, if it wasn't cleaned."

As California begins to reopen, some parts of the state may open more quickly than others. That's because the multi-step plan says a county can move more quickly if it has gone more than 14 days without a death from COVID-19.

On May 1st, a letter was sent to all dental providers in San Diego county.

"I am recommending that the suspension of all non-essential dental care recommendations published on March 19 remains in effect until further notice," read the letter from Chief Medical Officer Nick Yphantides.

In an email to NBC 7 Responds, a county spokesperson pointed us to the CDPH's new guidance for dental offices and said the county's "public health officer has not issued any orders that are more restrictive."

When dental offices do start seeing more patients, it will look different. Nagy says magazines may be removed from waiting rooms, the staff might be wearing full-face shields, and there could be a plastic barrier at the front desk.

Dr. Holyoak is still waiting on more protective gear for his employees but is worried about his growing number of patients. He's already thought about expanding his hours of operation and even working on the weekends.

"I'm full for the next few months," said Dr. Holyoak. "Now we'll try to get two months' worth of people who want to come in. It's going to be difficult."

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