Maine dentists are now permitted to offer full services – including routine care such as teeth cleanings and filling cavities – after they complained about being left out of the Mills administration’s reopening plans.

Many Mainers had dental appointments postponed in the past two months as dental practices were allowed to provide only emergency services as the novel coronavirus pandemic deepened. With routine care pushed off, many patients’ oral health started to decline, as simple fillings turned into root canals or worse, dentists said.

Dr. Whitney Wignall is “thrilled” to begin seeing patients again. She said she will begin operating on a limited basis Thursday and fully reopen next week. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Dr. Whitney Wignall, a Portland pediatric dentist, said she’s “thrilled” to begin seeing patients again. She said she will begin operating on a limited basis Thursday with a full reopening next week.

“Dental caries (cavities) is a disease, and if you delay care the disease can quickly progress,” Wignall said. “That’s why it’s important to reopen now.”

When to reopen routine dental care had erupted into a controversy with dentists saying they believed they could start doing routine care on May 1, only to be told by Mills administration officials that emergency-only care had to continue. Most states, including all of New England except Maine and Vermont, already had reopened routine dental care or set a date in May to reopen.

Keeping Maine “emergency only” was based on recommendations by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to Jeanne Lambrew, Maine’s health and human services commissioner.

Last week, after being pressed by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, during a Senate committee hearing, U.S. CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield said routine care for dentistry could resume and he expected the federal agency would soon issue new guidelines for doing so. Lambrew said last week that if the U.S. CDC did not issue new recommendations by Monday, the state would defer to the Maine Dental Association and American Dental Association, which said routine care could resume immediately with new safety precautions.

The U.S. CDC has not yet issued new guidelines, and so dentistry reopened on Monday based on guidelines from the dental associations, said Jackie Farwell, Maine Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman.

“Maine DHHS recognizes the value of dental care in maintaining overall health and well-being. That’s why from the beginning and throughout the civil state of emergency, urgent dental and other health care has been permitted to continue,” Farwell said in a statement. “Resumption of non-urgent dental care (on Monday) puts Maine ahead of Connecticut and in line with Massachusetts.”

Practice coordinator Keelan Monroe, center, leads a staff meeting Monday about the reopening of Southern Maine Pediatric Dentistry. The office will reopen Tuesday, and the staff spent the day Monday preparing for patients. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Dr. Brad Rand, president of the Maine Dental Association, said that reopening this week should be in harmony with Mills’ plan to “prioritize care for patients with time-sensitive conditions; assure the safety of patients, staff, and communities; and manage the use of essential resources such as personal protective equipment.”

It will take time to gear up services and serve the pent up demand for time in the dentist chair. Wignall said patients may not be able to get in immediately, especially if they don’t have urgent needs, and also that the dental practice has to get used to new ways of operating that emphasize physical distancing.

For instance, patients will wait in their cars for their appointment to begin, and will be screened through questions on their recent health status, temperature checked for fever and hands sanitized before dental services can start, Wignall said.

She said daily volume will be down – especially in the first few weeks – as staff and patients get used to the new routine.

Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, an Augusta dentist who often lobbies on behalf of dental legislation before the Maine Legislature, said he’s happy dental practices can resume because dental “emergencies have been building up.”

The extra time away has had one benefit in that people who come into the office are used to wearing masks and not standing too close to people except when necessary.

“We are hoping the changes that have occurred in supermarkets and other public venues will make people not too surprised when they come to the dentist,” Shenkin said.

 

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