Dentists across St. Louis searching for critical PPE needed to see patients

ST. LOUIS — As dentists begin to reschedule patients who had been deferred due to the COVID-19 pandemic, behind the scenes they are in an expensive race to track down critical supplies.

Some dentists say prices for certain items of personal protective equipment have tripled, or more. Combined with lost revenue from canceled procedures, it poses an added financial pressure for practices.

“You go into dentistry not thinking that it’s going to be a huge risk,” said Dr. Emily Hahn, a dentist who owns Skyview Pediatric Dentistry in Town and Country. “Dental offices — typically — they don’t fail.”

“Right now it’s, I would say, much riskier,” Hahn added.

Hahn opened her practice in October, and in March, she stopped all nonemergency procedures.

“To have a business opened five months and then closed, was — it was intense,” Hahn said.

She said her practice will survive the pandemic, but the revenue lost during that time was substantial, and the new costs for protective supplies have risen greatly.

Hahn and other dentists also donated portions of their PPE supplies to nearby hospitals when the region saw its first cases of the virus.

“It was the absolute right thing to do,” said Dr. Danielle Riordan, a dentist at Family Dentistry of St. Peters. “But now … it has certainly produced a concern for a lot of the area dentists.”

Faulty supplies

To help alleviate concerns about dwindling protective equipment, the Greater St. Louis Dental Society ordered 120,000 KN95 masks in bulk, to distribute to members. But when the masks arrived, members of the group said they spotted red flags.

Dr. Michael Hoffmann, a dental anesthesiologist in Clayton, said he weighed the new masks.

They weighed five grams, lighter than the six-gram masks he already owned, he said. He cut one of the masks open and found there was a layer of filtration missing.

The society was able to receive a refund for the shipment, said Dr. Mark Scantlan, a dentist at Meramec Dental Center in Sullivan and current president of the society. But still, the group had to inform hundreds of its members that they would not be receiving the new KN95s.

And beyond the challenges of identifying faulty equipment, dentists still need to contend with higher costs for PPE.

“The price of everything jumps to the moon when it’s not readily available,” Scantlan said. “And if you need it in order to be able to practice, then you’re obviously going to pay whatever.”

The CDC has recommended that dental workers wear an N95 before entering a patient room, and if that is unavailable, a surgical mask and full-face shield. If neither option is available, the CDC recommends referring the patient to another office that does have appropriate PPE.

Survey data from the American Dental Association suggests that many dentists in Missouri don’t have N95s.

Of 125 dental practices surveyed in Missouri the week of May 4, roughly a third had zero N95 masks in stock, according to data from the ADA’s Health Policy Institute.

Of all the dental practices surveyed, only 27% said they had more than two weeks’ worth of N95 masks in stock.

Moving forward

Dentists say the pandemic could have long-lasting impacts on their industry.

Patient volumes will not return immediately, as appointments are spaced out to allow for more cleaning. And some wonder if any of the new precautions will become permanent.

For now, when patients return to their dentists’ offices, many will see that magazines and toys have been removed from waiting rooms. And there will be fewer patients inside the offices at a time.

Patients may have been screened for symptoms of COVID-19 multiple times before they step across the threshold. And some offices will be equipped with new air scrubbers and UV-light mask sanitizers.

Hahn, of Skyview Pediatric Dentistry, started seeing more patients May 18, but she doesn’t anticipate building back up to her office’s former volumes right away.

“For the next couple of weeks, my schedule is cut in half,” Hahn said. “At my practice, I don’t want a family to ever see another family as they come in and out.”

Hahn said the learning curve has been steep for the new requirements of a pandemic.

“Determining how we protect ourselves appropriately is an ongoing challenge, to say the least,” Hahn said.

Annika Merrilees • 314-340-8528 @annie3mer on Twitter

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