MANKATO — After a lull last year with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, local dentists say most of their patients are back.
“We aren’t back at the same speed by design that we were say, 15 months ago, but you can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel with vaccines coming along, the infection numbers still looking good,” said Dr. Douglas Vose, a Mankato-based dentist.
“For the past few weeks, we get more and more folks who call up and say, ‘We’ve both had our vaccines and we need to get our teeth cleaned,’” he said. “So, it’s coming back in a trickle, but it’s coming back fine.”
Shortly after the Minnesota Department of Health confirmed the first case of COVID-19 on March 6, 2020, dentists were among the plethora of businesses required to close — with an exception for dental emergencies — for nearly two months.
Dr. Amanda Hyland of Hyland Dental in Mankato, said there were patients hesitant to return when they opened up again last May for routine check-ups, but by mid-summer, the vast majority came back.
“People for the most part are coming in,” Hyland said. “We have a few more people who said, ‘I’m just going to wait a couple more months until I get a vaccine.’ But most people are comfortable coming in and feel like it’s a safe environment.”
Part of that might have to do with the fact that the field already had strict protocols in place even before the pandemic to prevent the spread of illnesses. When the pandemic arrived, dentists added extra steps to ensure the safety of both patients and staff.
“I don’t know of a single transmission of COVID in a dental office,” Vose said.
Mankato-based dentist Dr. Tom Pooley said preventative visits to his clinic are back up to where they were pre-pandemic, although he’s seen a slight drop in more intensive procedures.
That, said Pooley, is not something patients should put off, as there are a variety of serious consequences to avoiding a dental checkup or procedure.
“If you hold off on dental treatment, it gets more expensive,” Pooley said. “So higher costs, loss of more teeth, pain and suffering just from having infections, so more problems in waiting on getting stuff done.”
Hyland said it’s unwise to procrastinate to visit the dentist even if patients don’t feel pain from a broken tooth, especially if it’s a filling or a crown. If a patient waits until there is pain, their chances of requiring a root canal or the loss of that tooth are much more likely.
She said the same urgency applies to the gums; missing routine dental visits (Hyland recommends that patients get a check-up every 6-12 months) can lead to the build-up of plaque. If left unchecked, that build-up can spread below the gumline.
“If that sits long enough you could start to have some gum disease and lose bone support surrounding the tooth,” Hyland said.
But it’s not just the mouth and teeth that are at risk. Pooley said a routine dental visit can reveal more serious ailments, like oral cancers and even heart disease.
“Your mouth can show signs of heart disease and different things like that,” Pooley said. “So, making sure you’re getting all of your dental needs taken care of is just as important as everything else during these trying times.”
Last year, a number of published peer-reviewed studies revealed a correlation between COVID-19 and gum disease. Those findings suggested a greater risk for COVID-19 patients with gum disease, and the increased likelihood of pain in the gums as a symptom of the virus.
Hyland said a couple of her patients reported undiagnosed pain in the gums a couple months after they tested positive for COVID-19, though she emphasized there was no way to prove a correlation.
“Is it related to COVID? We don’t know, but it is coincidental that we had a couple people post-COVID who had unexplained gum pain,” Hyland said. “We were not able to diagnose what was causing it.”
Vose said he’s been pleased with how understanding most patients have been in adapting to COVID protocols of the past year, and that the majority of his patients are comfortable coming in for an appointment again.
“Like other businesses, dental offices have had their trials, but you just put your head down, do what you’re supposed to do, and we’ll come out the other end just fine,” he said.