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Shawnee dental clinic adjusts to COVID-19 changes

Kelci McKendrik - kmckendrick@news-star.com

It’s the smile behind the mask that’s missed the most at a Shawnee dental clinic.

At Hopkins Dental Clinic, the aseptic precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t a huge change, as the clinic has always practiced clean care. It’s the social distancing protocols that have proved more difficult.

“We are the kind of staff who would frequently shake your hand, pat you on the back, hold your hand, hold your baby, build blocks with the kiddos in the waiting room, provide a needed hug to make you feel like part of our dental family,” Dr. Eric Hopkins of the clinic said in an email. “Wearing masks the whole day even eliminates our ability to share a friendly smile when interacting with our patients.”

At the end of April, the Oklahoma Board of Dentistry gave dental clinics the OK to reopen following Gov. Kevin Stitt’s three-phase plan to reopen, and since then, Shawnee dentists and hygienists have been hard at work to keep their patients’ smiles clean and healthy while adjusting to new health and safety standards as COVID-19 continues to sweep the nation.

In March, Hopkins Dental Clinic closed to general and preventative dentistry for seven weeks except for dental emergencies to help keep patients out of hospital emergency rooms, Hopkins said.

Teledentistry — which Hopkins said is a “digital exchange of information and images to attempt to limit the number of physical office visits” — was also introduced at the clinic during the closure to help figure out whether patients needed to be treated immediately or if they could wait.

Reopening after the seven-week closure came with new changes. Hopkins said the clinic is at about two-thirds of its normal number of appointments, but it is booking appointments a little further out than usual.

“Being closed for seven weeks resulted in those weeks’ worth of appointments being rescheduled, but in general we are seeing gradual return to pre-COVID interest in dental care,” he added.

Hopkins said the clinic is purposely limiting daily appointment numbers to keep an appropriate staff-to-patient ratio to help with social distancing, and the clinic hired an additional hygienist to allow the clinic to safely see more patients.

“We do get some cancellations due to a patient deciding it is best they not yet leave their homes, but just as many are put at ease (after) learning our protocols,” Hopkins said.

Hopkins said the clinic has always met or exceeded the CDC guidelines for aseptic requirements in utilizing hospital-grade disinfectants, multi-level sterilization processes and staff personal protective equipment.

The clinic staff evaluates each patient’s health history for risk factors before consulting them about taking extra precautions for an appointment, such as scheduling them for a time when there are less people there, Hopkins said.

In the clinic waiting rooms, magazines, the kids’ play area and most of the furniture have been removed, and what remains is spaced out into separated zones. Access to the waiting room is controlled, and the clinic asks that only the patient comes to the appointment with the exceptions of minors or adults who require assistance. Anyone not receiving treatment inside is required to wear a mask, and the clinic provides masks for those who don’t already have one.

The clinic informs patients via appointment text reminders that patients call the clinic from their vehicles upon arrival, and the clinic conducts an over-the-phone COVID-19 screening questionnaire before the patient is allowed inside.

Inside, a staff member waits for patients at the door to take their temperatures, provide hand sanitizer and guide them through the entire appointment. After their appointments, patients wait in their operatory room for a front desk staff member to come and check them out.

All staff members wear masks, and everything that requires contact is immediately disinfected, including restrooms. Anything that whizzes, whirs, scrapes, pokes, sprays and brushes in the rooms are disinfected immediately.

“Anything that was in contact during the patient’s treatment is either bagged and sterilized or is sprayed with hospital grade disinfectant and allowed to sit on that surface for no less than 10 minutes,” Hopkins said. “Then (it) is sprayed again and smeared rather than wiped.”

This smearing method allows an additional layer of disinfectant to remain on the surface to allow for a longer disinfecting period, which can leave streaks behind. Hopkins said those streaked surfaces are not only clean but “extra clean.”

For staff members, Hopkins said the key to cleanliness was good habits from the start. The staff washes their hands multiple times a day, even before COVID-19. The clinic has always used level three masks, safety glasses, uniforms and more. The clinic now keeps high-efficiency particulate air filters running, closes doors when utilizing high-speed handpieces and layers  personal protective equipment for certain procedures.

The clinic makes it a priority to never cut corners when it comes to aseptic practices and staff safety, especially now. Coronavirus spreads from close person-to-person contact and mainly through respiratory droplets in the air, and since dental work is done in close quarters, extra precautions have to be taken.

But Hopkins Dental Clinic is prepared for those extra safety measures.

“We are doing everything possible to ensure your health while improving your smile,” Hopkins said.