While we focus on vaccinating more Virginians, there is another critical area of our health that must not be overlooked amid the pandemic: dental care.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that many people have been delaying their regular visits to the dentist over virus-related concerns. But the worry is largely misplaced.
Not only have dental offices throughout the commonwealth been leading the way in implementing a comprehensive array of safety measures, but patients should be aware that forestalling dental visits introduces risks that can lead to more serious dental consequences as well as overall health conditions.
Unfortunately, our oral health often does not receive the priority that it merits, when in fact, a healthy body starts with a healthy mouth.
Oral health touches every part of our lives, and studies indicate that serious health conditions, including diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, can be tied to poor oral health, particularly among individuals whose oral care has been so neglectful that they no longer have teeth.
What’s more, painful conditions like a tooth abscess can spread beyond the mouth and affect the brain with serious complications. It’s commonly understood amid the medical community that the mouth is a window to systemic health.
Even before the pandemic, access to oral healthcare has been challenging, particularly here in Southwest Virginia. Not only does the region suffer from a lack of dental practices – we have fewer than half the per capita number of dentists as Virginia as a whole – but the affordability of care is a predominant factor, a fact that has been compounded by the economic impact of COVID.
While the Virginia Dental Association continues to advocate for meaningful adult dental Medicaid benefits, the cost of care is cited by a significant number of people as the reason they put off trips to the dentist.
One initiative designed to increase accessibility to dental care is a program created by the Virginia Dental Association Foundation called Mission of Mercy (MOM).
Since 2000, the foundation has been sponsoring MOM events in rural communities across Virginia where people receive free oral care. In Grundy and Wise alone, some 31,000 patients have received nearly $27 million in free dental services – from cleanings and fillings to extractions and dentures.
While the pandemic forced the suspension of the large-scale MOM clinics over the past year, we are preparing for smaller clinics later this spring, with proper safety precautions in place. We have an event planned in Abingdon on April 29-May 1. (Check the VDAF.org website for more information and updates.)
Meanwhile, for those who have been delaying visits to the dentist over COVID concerns, patients should be aware of the significant changes that dental offices have undertaken to ensure the safety of patients and staff alike.
Offices have instituted a variety of new protocols and procedures in keeping with CDC and OSHA guidelines that help keep patients safe. Patients are screened days out for symptoms, as well as at the door, including a temperature check.
Dentists have reduced the number of patients they see each day, with “waiting rooms” now in the parking lot. Cleaning regimens have been enhanced, as has the use of head-to-toe protective equipment, including N95 masks. The fact is dental offices today are among some of the safest places around.
As the vaccine rollout continues – likely for the better part of this year – please recognize that your oral health is every bit as important.
Dr. Elizabeth Reynolds is a practicing dentist in Central Virginia and the immediate past president of the Virginia Dental Association. Dr. Scott R. Miller is a practicing dentist in Southwest Virginia, Clinic Director for the Appalachian Highlands Community Dental Center and co-director of the Virginia Dental Association Foundation’s Mission of Mercy Denture Team.