Has the pandemic affected your teeth? There's only one way to find out.
COVID disrupted our lives, our routines, and our dental health. An expert fills us in on what has happened, and what we should all do about it.
COVID has put us through a lot – and in addition to illness and anxiety, it’s also disrupted our normal schedules. With life-or-death medical news in the headlines, it’s not surprising that many people have neglected and are still neglecting dental care. We asked Joan Monaco, Director of Dental Operations at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon), for her insight on our collective dental situation.
COVID of course hasn't gone away, and we're currently looking at an intense flu and RSV season. In general, how safe is it to go to the dentist, knowing the person treating your teeth is very close to your mouth?
JOAN MONACO, DMD: It is very safe. Dentistry has very strict protocols that were put in place during the mid-'80s, in response to an outbreak of hepatitis and AIDS that was tracked back to a dental office. Dentistry went into full-blown infection-control mode and changed its protocols. Every dental professional, when in contact with patients, has to constantly wear masks, gloves and safety goggles. We'd been taking those precautions for 30 years.
What is the state of dental care now?
MONACO: Well, in the beginning of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said you couldn't have more than one patient in an office at a time – and that created a tremendous backlog. Also, some people opted out of care. So there is a backlog of around six months now to get an appointment. Still, dental offices are at about 83% of the volume that they were before COVID.
Is the care that dentists provide now any different than before COVID?
MONACO: We're seeing a lower volume of claims, but the claims are for the more expensive and invasive procedures. So that tells me that people opted out of dental care and now they're coming back because something's wrong. These are not just checkups or minor procedures—they're having pain, and they need to get it fixed.
So we've got one group of people who kept going to the dentist regularly and another group who put off dental visits but now need more serious care. What about the middle group of people who put off dental care but have no obvious signs that anything is amiss?
MONACO: That's a big group. They may have some issue—let's say, a small cavity—or they may not. The problem is that they just don't know. They need to get in for a checkup or a cleaning, so the dentist can look and say Ok, you have a small cavity, it's going to become a problem over time.
Just because your dentist finds some issues doesn't mean you have to fix everything right away. But you can make an educated choice; you can weigh the costs and develop a plan to fix what you can. It's better to know what problems you have than to be in the dark.
I was saying earlier, say the dentist finds a small cavity. Then four months later, if you start having pain, you will know the cause and you can decide whether to get treatment or postpone it. You can decide to go in while the treatment is still a filling – before it becomes a root canal, or an extraction, or the tooth cracks.
There is that irrational thinking that says If I go to the dentist, they might find a problem, which will cost money, so the way to avoid the expensive problem is to not go to the dentist.
MONACO: And unfortunately, that's not how it works. That's not how life works. Not going to the dentist to avoid learning you have a problem does not make the problem go away—it amplifies the problem, the bill and the discomfort.
So for those who've not been to the dentist in, say, two or more years, and may feel a bit intimidated or anxious, how can they get back on track?
This is so common right now. When you call to make an appointment, you may feel a bit embarrassed or ashamed that it's been two years, you may even feel apologetic—I can tell you, the dentist's office hears this all day long. When the person on the phone asks how long it's been since your last visit, it's not to shame you—if it’s been a while, they will want to book a longer appointment, just to allow for a more thorough cleaning or more X-rays.
You've just got to get back up on that horse. Just call up and say I haven't been in for two years, I need a cleaning and a checkup. It's safe, it's covered for Horizon members with dental insurance, and you'll find out where you stand.
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