Postponing your dental appointment? Dentists following COVID guidelines rarely test positive for virus

CHICAGO, Ill. — If you consider coronavirus the ultimate excuse to avoid the dentist, you may be surprised at the results of a new report that finds dentists are among the least likely health professionals to contract COVID-19. Although we might expect such an in-your-face (or in-your-mouth) profession to be at high risk, fewer than one percent of dentists nationwide have tested positive for the virus.

How is that possible? For starters, researchers say 99.7 percent of dentists ramped up infection control procedures. This includes following guidelines of both the American Dental Association (ADA) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“This is very good news for dentists and patients,” says senior study author Marcelo Araujo, CEO of the ADA’s Science and Research Institute, in a media release. “This means that what dentists are doing – heightened infection control and increased attention to patient and dental team safety – is working.”

Ending dental office myths

The New York Times in March flagged dentistry as one of the highest-risk professions on the basis of U.S. Department of Labor data. During dental procedures, not only is social distancing impossible, but there is also the potential of virus-laden aerosols to swirl around the room.

Despite the media’s dire predictions, study authors find dental professionals went into high gear to combat the risks. Their determination seems to be paying off, according to the results of the first-ever large scale study of dentistry during the coronavirus pandemic.

Screening protocols and enhanced disinfection practices were quickly adopted at dental offices across the nation, including disinfecting all equipment and surfaces that are commonly touched. Offices also began checking staff and patient temperatures and screening patients for COVID-19. Dental professionals upped personal protective equipment (PPE) to the highest level, using masks, goggles, and face shields. They also embraced the ADA’s interim guidelines to use rubber dams, high velocity suction, and to clean teeth by hand scaling instead of ultrasonic scaling to reduce aerosols.

Researchers gathered information in June 2020 from 2,195 dentists representing every state and Puerto Rico. Participants answered a web survey that included questions about protective measures undertaken related to COVID-19 and about their personal health.

Dentists are beating the COVID odds

Of the dentists surveyed, 20 had confirmed or probable COVID-19 infections. When weighing the results by age and geographical location, researchers estimate that only 0.9 percent of dentists nationwide have confirmed or probable infections. The results have a margin of error of 0.5 percent.

The results of the report revealed that 82.2 percent of dentists were asymptomatic in the month prior to the survey. Another 16.6 percent had been tested for COVID-19. Of those tested, 3.7 percent and 2.7 percent tested positive by respiratory and blood samples, respectively. There were no positive saliva tests. For those who did not get tested, 0.3 percent were given a probable diagnosis by a physician.

“The fact that dentistry was named one of the most at-risk professions for infection, but has a far lower prevalence of infection compared to other health professions, is not a coincidence,” adds Chief Economist and Vice President of the ADA Health Policy Institute Marko Vujicic, Ph.D. “The profession has taken this issue extremely seriously, and it shows. We will continue to track the rate of COVID-19 among dentists and other facets of the pandemic affecting dentistry so it can help inform the dental profession and other industries as well.”

Study authors say the results of their findings support the effectiveness of following the CDC and ADA guidelines in limiting the spread of COVID-19 infections among dentists. Researchers are continuing to collect data that will include dental hygienists in upcoming survey results.

So pitch those excuses and take care of your teeth, because cavities and gingivitis don’t know or care about COVID-19.

Results are published in The Journal of the American Dental Association.