Worried their patients may be needlessly putting off important checkups and cleanings, local dentists are trying to clear up confusion about cautionary guidance issued earlier this month by the World Health Organization.
WHO's missive, reported by news organizations across the United States, advised delaying non-essential dental care — but only in places where community transmission of COVID-19 is elevated or at the recommendation of local, regional or national officials.
Some dental organizations have taken aim at the organization's statement itself, while others have blamed news media, including one local broadcaster, for putting out misleading headlines about WHO's guidance.
Bakersfield-area dentists say it's not clear that WHO's Aug. 3 statement has resulted in a slowdown in visits locally. But after non-emergency dental services were suspended in California between March and May, their concern is that people with treatable dental problems could be making their condition worse by staying away from the dentist.
Oral surgeon Olena Norris, president of the Kern County Dental Society, said dental disease sometimes occurs with no symptoms. If it's not diagnosed in a timely manner, through a routine checkup for example, the patient could lose teeth or end up in a hospital.
The same sense of urgency applies to cleanings, she said: Failure to get professional attention can lead to loss of bone or disease.
"I don't think it's wise to put off checkups," she said.
The American Dental Association doesn't either. It issued a statement Aug. 12 saying it "respectfully yet strongly disagrees" with WHO's assessment.
"Oral health is integral to overall health. Dentistry is essential health care," ADA President Chad P. Gehani stated. "Dentistry is essential health care because of its role in evaluating, diagnosing, preventing or treating oral diseases, which can affect systemic health."
WHO's chief dental officer, Benoit Varenne, felt obliged to issue a statement Aug. 13 saying news media headlines "intentionally or not" failed to mention the organization's guidelines "is only suggested in an intense uncontrolled community transmission scenario." He added that scenario doesn't exist in most parts of the world.
Jared Simpson, former president of the county dental society, said by email his practice screens incoming patients by asking questions and taking their temperature. And in accordance with guidance issued May 7 by the California Department of Public Health, his office also staggers appointments to limit patients' exposure and makes liberal use of personal protective equipment, or PPEs.
Simpson said he doesn't think the WHO guidance is relevant in Kern County because the virus hasn't gotten out of hand locally. He also has seen no data correlating dental visits with COVID-19 infections.
Some of his patients have expressed anxiety about possible exposure to the virus, he said, while others are more frustrated about delays in their care.
"I don’t believe enough time has passed yet to see if the WHO article has had much of an impact on the general public’s attitude," Simpson wrote. "I can say that patients should seek guidance and direction from their dentist about appropriate treatment specific to their needs."
He added that the dental society's board, of which he remains a member, has had several long discussions about how to protect patients and office staff.
"We want people to be safe AND healthy, and we believe we are delivering essential services to our community," he stated.