When a patient really needs to open wide, but the dental office is closed

A dentist wearing a double mouth mask and a face screen treats a patient.
A dentist wearing a double mouth mask and a face screen treats a patient at a dentist cabinet in Gavere, Belgium, on April 6, 2020. Gov. Tim Walz ordered dental offices to suspend routine and elective care in Minnesota during the COVID-19 crisis. But some dental offices chose to simply close, creating a problem for people seeking emergency care.
Nicolas Maeterlinck | Belga | AFP via Getty Images

Julie Ford, of Bloomington, recently had a major dental problem.

“I had a tooth that broke off at the gum line,” said Ford, 47. “I woke up one morning and it just got infected really bad.”

Ford needed a dentist, but finding one who could help was difficult. Not having a regular dentist of her own, she tried the one who cares for her husband.

“I called them to see if they could take a look at it, but they were closed,” she said.

Many dental offices have been shut since Gov. Tim Walz ordered a temporary halt to routine and elective dental care as part of Minnesota’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bridgett Anderson, executive director of the Minnesota Board of Dentistry, said the board has no idea how many of Minnesota’s 1,500 dental practices closed their doors to all patients after Walz’s executive order. Anderson said some dentists can’t afford to remain open without revenue from preventive care.

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“It’s the way it has to be,” she said. “It’s the reality of it and we understand that some of them actually cannot withstand the financial burden.”

Anderson said some dental offices have closed because they lack adequate personal protective equipment for employees. Dentists and their staffs are at special risk of contracting COVID-19 because they work around and in patients’ open mouths, exposing them to particles carried on patients’ breath.

“They’re actually at a higher risk because of that aerosol generation,” she said.

While dental offices are not required to remain open for emergency care, if they close, they are required to direct their patients in need of emergency care to other dentists.

Kris Ehresmann, infectious disease director at the Minnesota Department of Health, began urging dentists to keep dental emergencies out of hospital emergency rooms three weeks ago. She said she thinks they've gotten the message.

"We want to reserve emergency rooms for acute emergencies and we want to make sure that the staff there and the resources are reserved for that,” Ehresmann said. “And that we use the appropriate setting in a dental office to address dental emergencies."

That's how Julie Ford got help. Her husband's dentist linked her with emergency care from Children’s Dental Services. It's a nonprofit organization with two Minneapolis locations. Sarah Wovcha, executive director, said her organization normally treats people 26 and under, but is now seeing anyone who needs emergency dental care.

“Pain, infection, swelling, any kind of tooth fracture or sort of trauma to the tooth,” she said.

It's not clear when dentists will be allowed to provide routine preventive and cosmetic care.

The Minnesota Board of Dentistry says it's concerned the financial hardship may be too much for some practices, which may end up closing for good — further straining access to care, particularly in rural Minnesota.