Emergency dental team continues despite high risk

(from left) Dental assistant Nicola Ward, general dental practitioner and professional practice...
(from left) Dental assistant Nicola Ward, general dental practitioner and professional practice fellow Alysha Dunning, dental assistant Colleen Clark, general dental practitioner and professional practice fellow Malcolm Dacker and special care clinic dental assistant Sandra Mason. PHOTO: SUPPLIED
A team of University of Otago dentists continues to work in high-risk conditions to provide emergency dental care during the coronavirus lockdown.

The team members were volunteers and the work was dangerous, Faculty of Dentistry clinical director Dr Don Schwass said.

"We’re wired to help. It’s in our DNA. It’s what we’ve done for our whole careers," he said.

The Faculty’s new Clinical Services Building was normally buzzing with activity, undertaking more than 60,000 patient treatments each year while training dentistry students.

But under the Covid-19 restrictions, only two to four of its 281 dental chairs were in use, and the dentists were working in two-hour rotations clad in protective equipment.

The service has been pared back to emergency-only, with patients screened by phone and only the most acute cases seen — about 12 patients a day.

Where possible, patients are treated medically by prescription over the phone, and what qualified as a dental emergency is tightly defined, including severe pain not able to be managed by drugs.

The team had very limited treatment options. Drills could not be used because the high-speed rotation whipped up the air, which could then spread the virus.

In Britain, an ENT specialist has already died after being infected while treating patients.

"Working in the mouth is one of the more high-risk things that you can do with the virus in the community.

‘‘So it’s basically hand instruments, dressings and extractions."

A root canal which might normally save a tooth could not be offered, and the only option, if antibiotics and pain relief failed, was to remove the tooth.

Forty people, including administrative staff, were providing the service, and knew that the southern region had the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the country, he said.

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