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The Louisiana Department of Health is ordering dental offices to provide only essential procedures for a 30-day period beginning March 18 to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, effectively shutting down dental practices statewide until April 16.

The Louisiana State Board of Dentistry said dentists should not perform any work that is nonessential, meaning it can be delayed without “running an undue risk of harm to the patient.” The board left it up to individual practices to determine what qualifies as an essential procedure.

For Dr. Margaret Patterson at Oak Family Dental in Metairie, essential procedures will be provided for patients experiencing “pain or swelling.” She noted that it's important that patients experiencing emergencies — like an infection or badly chipped tooth — reach out to their dentists for guidance and avoid overburdening hospitals.

A number of clinics already began adjusting their practices after the American Dental Association recommended on Monday that dentists nationwide postpone elective procedures and focus primarily on emergency dental care for the next three weeks.

The executive director of the Louisiana Dental Association, Ward Blackwell, said the group largely supports the measure, though he was disappointing that the state didn’t consult with them on the specifics of the order before it was announced.

Dentists are among the highest risk for exposure to the coronavirus according to an analysis of data maintained by the Department of Labor. They often work with air-powered equipment that flushes saliva and blood out the mouth — and into the air.

“We treat everybody like they have a disease no matter the patient's age or disposition,” said Dr. Jerome Smith, a dentist in Lafayette. “That’s because we work six inches from people’s faces.”

The restrictions are likely to be “financially devastating” for dental practices which often run on incredibly tight profit margins, said Dr. William Welch, of Highland Dental Center in Baton Rouge. He likened dental offices to “mini hospitals,” expensive to operate given the staff, supplies and overhead required.

“We’re feeling the same pain that other businesses in the community are feeling,” said Patterson. “We’re going to have to be together on this one.”

 


Email Blake Paterson at bpaterson@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter @blakepater