As a recent article in The New York Times highlighted, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect the delivery of oral health care across the United States. While most dental clinics have re-opened under new CDC safety and infection control guidelines, many dental offices lost staff in 2020 which could strain the oral health care system, especially in areas that already faced dental provider shortages. And there’s no question that many people have gone without necessary oral health care as a result of the pandemic. Preliminary data show significant declines in access to care among children covered by Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) over the past year, placing it at the top of the list of unmet needs during the pandemic. However, The New York Times article points to some promising policy solutions that Community Catalyst and our partners have previously highlighted.
As we emphasized in our recent brief, and Dr. Donald Chi points out in the article, COVID-19 has necessitated a shift toward less invasive approaches to care that can keep patients healthy while reducing the need for procedures like drilling cavities, which create aerosols. In particular, Dr. Chi utilizes silver diamine fluoride to arrest tooth decay without drilling and filling. Clinics like the Lummi Tribal Health Clinic in Washington state were early adopters of such approaches as part of their community-based teledentistry program during COVID-19. In addition to utilizing safer and less-invasive approaches to treating dental disease, the Lummi clinic and others have relied on community providers like dental therapists to expand their reach and meet the oral health needs of the communities they serve.
As the Biden-Harris administration and state governments ramp up COVID-19 vaccination efforts, oral health providers can play a critical role in combatting the pandemic. The New York Times article notes that at least 20 states allow dentists to administer the COVID-19 vaccine. Given the existing roles of dental hygienists and dental therapists as trusted providers who often serve in community-based settings, states should also consider expanding their role to maximize COVID-19 vaccination efforts.