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Dentistry changes with COVID-19

By Rich Palzewic
Staff Writer

SUAMICO – After a two-month hiatus, it’s business as usual for many local dentists.

Shutting down in mid-March, Dr. Brian Schaefer, who has an office at 2855 Carolina Cherry Dr. in Suamico, said his office has come back better than before in the fight against COVID-19.

“Some of the changes are permanent, while others we’ll have to monitor to see if things will ease up over time,” he said.

Schaefer said his daughter and dental hygienist, Megan Fay, was put in charge of the new guidelines.

“Ever since we closed March 16, I’ve been looking at the new protocol to keep us ahead of the game,” said Fay. “I’ve been reading as much as I can on the guidelines from the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the WDA (Wisconsin Dental Association) to get us up and running. We did some team training, and I made sure we had the proper supplies. We have to be flexible. We’ve had lots of teamwork.”

Schaefer said he saw the shutdown coming, but his office probably closed about a week before it had to.

“With everything I had read beforehand, it was inevitable,” said Schaefer, who lost 20 pounds during the shutdown.

“I was on vacation the week before we closed, and I knew it would happen when I heard we were having a hard time getting masks. Without masks, we can’t do our job. Our suppliers didn’t have anything for a month.”

During the shutdown, he said he found supplies and geared up the office to make necessary changes.

One of those changes was a set of questions for patients who have an appointment.

Schaefer said patients should complete a self-check before coming into the office and reschedule if they have any symptoms of COVID-19.

“We did a soft opening during the second week in May to make sure everything ran smoothly,” he said. “We are also being more careful not to double-book patients anymore, but we are back to full strength. We added days to make up for lost appointments. Typically, June is a busy month, and we don’t have any openings right now. I’m not sure when we will catch up.”

Entering the office, patients and employees have their temperature checked and are asked a series of questions relating to symptoms, such as if they’ve traveled to any hot spots recently or have been around anyone with COVID-19.

Patients also get an email before their appointment asking the same questions they’re asked upon arrival and are required to use hand sanitizer when entering the clinic.

“We know people aren’t usually excited to come to the dentist, but surprisingly, many have been happy to be back,” said Schaefer, who also said the office doesn’t require a mask but suggests it. “I had more people say ‘thank you’ during the first two days we came back as compared to my first 30 years of practice. People wanted to get out again and view going to the dentist as a sign of normalcy. We are lucky we have a big reception area for people to spread out. We won’t make you wait in your car.”

Fay said nobody has been turned away because of a high temperature or other COVID-19 symptoms, but a few people have chosen to stay away for now.

“It’s mostly been some elderly patients who have decided to stay home, but we’ve also had older people come in like normal, too,” she said. “It all depends on your comfort level. We get patients back to their appointments quickly after they get into the office. We are also asking people not to bring their whole families in and make an honest assessment before their appointment.”

Schaefer said dentistry has always been one of the safest professions.

“We are infectious control experts,” he said. “We have always taken incredible precautions to care for the patients and staff. We’ve gone through HIV, SARS and modified many times before this. We are one of the safer places for people to be. I’ve taken pride in the fact I haven’t been sick in 34 years.”

When the office closed, he contacted his builder about options for ventilation.

“Hospitals have negative-pressure rooms, but since this isn’t a new building being built from scratch, that’s not possible to do,” he said. “His suggestion was to install filters and ultraviolet-C lights into our three HPAC (heating, piping, air conditioning) units here, which will kill bugs as the air goes through. On order yet, we have a large purification unit which will air out the (reception area) in a matter of minutes, it’s very high-tech. It’s impressive stuff, so it’s in high demand around the world. I ordered it in mid-April, and it should be here soon.”

Schaefer said the day after the filters were installed, he could notice a difference in the air quality.

“Even though we were forced to do it, it’s been a positive change,” he said. “We all feel better – we work here every day. We are protecting our patients and staff.”

He didn’t give an exact cost on how much his office spent with the updates, but said it’s been significant.

“I’d say most offices have spent between $25,000 and $50,000 to get up to speed,” said Schaefer. “It depends on where you were when COVID hit. If you had to partition off areas in the office, it would be more expensive. Since we are wearing more protective gear, I’ve had to turn the air conditioning (temperature) down because we get hotter in here.”

Schaefer said he was still nervous when the office reopened.

“I’ve come to realize more things have stayed the same as compared to being different,” he said.

He also said if you need dental work, try to schedule soon, because, with the ever-changing news dealing with COVID-19, it’s impossible to predict what the fall will look like.

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