Sask. dentists struggle to get N95 masks as clinics reopen

Some Saskatchewan dentist offices opened Monday, but others remain closed as they wait on protective equipment like N95 facemasks. 

Dentists won't go public, one says regulatory body has placed a 'gag order'

The Saskatchewan Dental Hygienists Association says, 'some oral health care facilities may choose to remain closed due to shortage of (PPE) or recent facility requirement changes.' (Justin Fraser/CBC)

Some Saskatchewan dentist offices opened Monday, but others remain closed as they wait on protective equipment like N95 facemasks. 

One dentist said they have been trying to secure N95 masks since January, to no avail. They are still waiting, searching and trying to not get duped by counterfeit products.

"The dental suppliers literally have nothing. They've been sold out for ages, so I have been trying to find other sources," the dentist said. "I still can't find [N95] masks." 

CBC has granted the dentist confidentiality because they fear they will be disciplined for speaking out. 

Dental clinics were allowed to resume business Monday as part of the provincial plan to reopen the economy. The clinic where this dentist works remains closed save for emergencies.

"I'm a little surprised that the province says we can open when the equipment that we need is in literally a worldwide short supply," they said.

The Ministry of Health said in a statement that the reopening plan doesn't require businesses to open, rather, "they are permitted to open if they are able to open safely." It also noted that health providers are required to source their own PPE. 

The College of Dental Surgeons of Saskatchewan (CDSS), which regulates the profession in the province, has advised its members to seek their own N95 masks because it has only secured "a very limited supply." 

Last week, other dentists publicly raised concerns regarding PPE shortages, but several are now unwilling to speak on the record.

The CDSS has told its members to send all media requests to it so that messaging remains "consistent." CBC News has spoken to several dentists who had concerns but did not want to be named publicly because they fear discipline from the CDSS.

'Very limited supply' 

The CDSS won't say how many N95 respirators it has acquired.  The masks are required for dentists to perform "urgent aerosol generating procedures" allowed in Phase 1 of the reopening plan.The CDSS advised members in an email that it had a "very limited supply" of disposable N95 respirators required for services that produce aerosols. 

"Due to the very limited CDSS supply and the uncertainty of if and when dentists will be able to source their own PPE, CDSS will use a very cautious phased approach to allocating," it said. 

'I've got a lot of older patients where literally this could be the thing that kills them, if they were to be infected by somebody when they came to the office,' says the dentist who can't access PPE. (Shutterstock)

CSS said it doesn't anticipate having predictable access to the PPE and that it "understands the challenge this presents."

People who don't have N95 masks and apply for them must demonstrate that they meet some criteria, including having at least one room from isolated floor-to-ceiling with an entry or entries that must be closed, along with other PPE.

College asks dentists to defer media requests

CDSS registrar Dr. Mitch Taillon sent an email to members on April 28.

"CDSS is in the final stages of confirming a supply of N95 Respirators for CDSS. Members can support this process by forwarding all Covid-19 Media requests to [the College]. This will support consistent, accurate and up to date responses," the email said.

"It's basically a gag order," said the anonymous dentist. 

They said their patients have expressed understanding when it is explained why the office isn't opening up. 

"So I don't see that a gag order is necessary for us to be able to say, 'We can't get the supplies, so realistically we can't open up,'" they said. "But on the other hand I also realize that they are a licensing body and they want to have control over what's being said."

The dentist said "there is a fear of getting disciplined" for not abiding by the CDSS's request. 

College declines request for interview 

The April email echoed one sent in mid-March that said, "members should forward all media requests to the CDSS for consistent, accurate and up to date messaging." 

Taillon declined an interview request from CBC, instead providing a statement.

"CDSS members have supported this effort by referring numerous media requests to the CDSS. CDSS is a public protection body that serves the people of Saskatchewan. So, in the public interest, we hope that CDSS correspondence with the media will inform the public with accurate up to date information," the statement said.

The CDSS would not elaborate on why it declined an interview or specify if and how a dentist would be disciplined if they spoke publicly.

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What are other professionals being told? 

Other professionals in the province are receiving varied guidance from their respective associations.

Massage therapy is an unregulated profession, so their licence doesn't depend on adherence to protocols set by their provincial association.

Lori Green, a spokesperson for the Massage Therapist Association of Saskatchewan, said the association wouldn't  restrict its members' ability to speak publicly about their practice.

"Isn't it freedom of speech? I don't think we would dare to ask one of our members not to speak to the press," Green said. 

As for optometrists, they are "free to speak for themselves and their specific business," said Sheila Spence, executive director of the Saskatchewan Association of Optometrists.

The Chiropractors' Association of Saskatchewan expects members to "check with them first," said executive director Tracy Bertram.

"We'll just, kind of, go through some of the key talking points and help them prepare, but we haven't said, 'You cannot' by any means," Bertram said.

Bertram says there are guidelines for members about speaking public and that members would be contacted if they didn't follow them.

"They are under certain precautions around professional conduct, but at the same time, we work with our members," Bertram said. "If they have concerns, we would hope that they would approach us first."


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