Toronto

Got a toothache? Don't let fear of COVID-19 keep you from getting treatment, dentists warn

Dentists say they are seeing more serious dental emergencies because people are worried about catching COVID-19 during routine checkups and cleanings. But infectious disease experts say the risk of catching the new coronavirus at the dentist's office is very low.

Practices have seen broken teeth, serious infections, even oral cancers since reopening

Ontario's Royal College of Dental Surgeons set out requirements for reopening, including PPE for all staff, screening for COVID-19 prior to the appointment, physical distancing between staff and other patients within the clinic, and sterilization of rooms and equipment between every appointment. (Michel Euler/The Associated Press file photo)

Dentists in Ontario are trying to calm patients' fears about coming to their offices amid the COVID-19 pandemic — after seeing people who have delayed treatments and checkups come in with problems that are severe, and even deadly.

Dr. Kal Khaled, a dental anesthesiologist and surgeon who owns and operates Southdown Dental in Mississauga, specializes in anxious patients who may need sedation.

"We saw dozens of patients with very unfortunate situations: broken teeth ... severe abscesses, life-threatening situations, even oral cancers that were not treated because people were scared to come to the dentist." 

Khaled, who's also the president of the Ontario Alliance of Dentists, says the profession has to address all the misinformation out there about the risks of getting COVID-19 from a dental appointment.

Dental practices were ordered closed in mid-March and were allowed to reopen only at the beginning of June, first for emergencies, then for routine and elective procedures. 

Dr. Kal Khaled, a dental anesthesiologist and surgeon in Mississauga, specializes in anxious patients who may need sedation. (submitted by Dr. Kal Khaled)

Ontario's Royal College of Dental Surgeons set out requirements for reopening, including personal protective equipment (PPE) for all staff, pre-screening for COVID-19 prior to the appointment, physical distancing between staff and other patients within the clinic, and sterilization of rooms and equipment between every appointment.

"Masks, gloves, gowns obviously for everyone, so the likelihood of transmission of the disease is almost zero," said Khaled.

Real estate agent Peter Anderson, who recently attended Khaled's practice for a cleaning by a dental hygienist, says the safety procedures included physical distancing, no people in the waiting area and masks everywhere.

Dr. Martha Fulford, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, says the risk of getting COVID-19 at the dentist is small. (twitter)

"I was glad to have my teeth cleaned and I felt like it was a very safe experience — much safer than going to the grocery store and other places that I've been to recently." But he says he understands people being anxious.

"I know a lot of people are apprehensive about going to the dentist in normal times."
 
But infectious disease experts like Dr. Martha Fulford say dentists have always been at the forefront of controlling the spread of pathogens.

"The risk of acquiring COVID is excessively small in that setting. I'm not sure why you would worry," said Fulford, an associate professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont.

"People have to sort of understand ...  the risk of missing an oral cancer or the risk of a cavity turning into a bone infection is high and that actually is going to be way worse."

Prevention guidelines 'very, very strict'

Dr. Lesli Hapak, president of the Ontario Dental Association, agrees.

"The risk of any transmission is minimized due to the enhanced precautions that we do take," said Hapak.

"Even as recently as three years ago we updated our infection prevention guidelines, which are very, very strict, and throughout the pandemic we just enhanced those procedures." 

Still, Hapak says association members were recently surveyed and are worried about getting enough PPE, especially given the worries about a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall.

"We're still trying to secure that PPE. They're still in a global shortage, so it's been challenging."

About the Author

Philip Lee-Shanok

Senior Reporter, CBC Toronto

From small town Ontario to Washington D.C., Philip has covered stories big and small. An award-winning reporter with more than two decades of experience in Ontario and Alberta, he's now a Senior Reporter for CBC Toronto on television, radio and online. He is also a National Reporter for The World This Weekend on Radio One. Follow him on Twitter @CBCPLS.

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