Vancouver oral surgeon Justin Hollar was busy over the last two months, despite his practice being closed.
Hollar rearranged the waiting room at Oral Surgery Solutions; there’s only three chairs, spaced far apart, and magazines are gone. He put up a sneeze guard at the front desk. He placed air purifiers in common staff areas. He sealed treatment room doors and purchased a system that reduces the spread of aerosols.
On Monday, Hollar met with his staff for training on infection control, personal protective equipment use and patient management workflow.
Hollar — who is among the dentists, doctors, surgeons and medical professionals who fall under the non-urgent treatment category — is allowed to reopen today, as Gov. Jay Inslee’s suspension of non-urgent medical procedures expires.
“There’s a lot of time-sensitive cases, who are eager to get back in for treatment,” Hollar said.
As dentists and other medical professionals return to work, it represents a necessary step in Washington’s COVID-19 recovery plan. But that does not mean everything will immediately return to normal.
As Hazel Dell dentist Keith Collins put it, “We’re having a slow, soft opening.”
In the case of Hollar’s practice, he’s planning to operate at 50 percent capacity for the foreseeable future.
Dentists will space out patient visits, require patients to wait in the car for appointments and reduce the patient population they have at any given time.
They’ve stocked up on personal protective equipment, and will screen staff and patients for COVID-19 symptoms daily.
Camas pediatric dentist Ron Hsu, who runs Storybook Dental, said the two months off has been far from a vacation, as he’s prepared his staff and office for a new normal.
“It’s not easy,” Hsu said. “It feels like we are all building our practices all over again.”
Hsu has categorized his young patients as being low, moderate or high risk for oral diseases. He said it’s possible that kids who are at lower risk may miss an in-person visit this year, as their teeth and gums are generally in good shape. That could mean a virtual visit this year and an office visit next year, when things are safer.
Dentists are prioritizing those most in need right now, as their practices operate at a lower capacity and they catch up on missed visits.
The state Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, professional dentistry groups and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration have offered conflicting guidance, Hsu and Hollar said, but dentists are using their best judgment on how to be safe.
That may mean holding off on certain procedures for now. Some patients have decided to postpone visits until COVID-19 cases decline more, Hsu said.
“There’s a certain level of anxiety for us, too,” Hsu said of reopening. “By nature, we want to be helpful. We want to be safe. It’s been quite an ordeal on all of us, on trying to tease out what the best and most reliable information is and how to implement that in our practices. We are not only responsible for our staff’s safety, we are also responsible for the safety of our patients, and frankly, ourselves and our family’s safety.”
In a press conference Monday, Inslee stressed that it’s safe to visit the dentist, or other medical providers, if proper safety protocol is in place.
Collins, who owns Collins Family & Implant Dentistry in Hazel Dell, said he’s suspending some elective procedures for the time being.
Once COVID-19 testing becomes more effective and available, Collins expects practices to operate more like they did in the past. While things will feel different for now, some things never change.
“I’m looking forward to hearing a patient say, ‘Thank you doctor,’” Collins said.