After months of sitting on the sidelines, dentists are finally getting their hero moment. Oral health providers and dental hygienists can now administer the COVID-19 vaccine to the public in a move that’s designed to dramatically ramp up the country’s vaccination campaign.
All Hands on Deck
President Joe Biden recently upped his goal to get 200 million shots administered within his first 100 days. The country is already administering around 2.5 million doses of the vaccine every day but asking dentists to join the effort should help push us over the finish line.
Earlier this month, Biden amended the emergency declaration under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act, which allows 151,000 dentists all over the country to give out the shot. That’s in addition to the 322,000 pharmacists already administering doses. Before his announcement, 28 states were already in the process of allowing dentists to join the vaccination campaign, but the federal mandate will supersede any state laws.
Jane Grover, director of the Council on Advocacy for Access and Prevention at the American Dental Association, calls it a game changer, saying, “We need to mobilize more people to get more shots in people’s arms.”
Illinois-based dentist A.J. Acierno says poking people’s arms will be easier than shooting a bit of novocaine into a patient’s mouth because he won’t have to worry about their tongue getting in the way or their mouth chomping down on the syringe.
Acierno also says it speaks to how dentists are changing their approach across the country. “We used to be drillers and fillers. Now we’re looking at the overall health of an individual.”
Warming Up to Vaccines
Increasing the number of vaccination centers has its own benefit, but some say dentists are uniquely suited to give out the shot, especially when it comes to soothing people’s fears and hesitancy around getting vaccinated.
Jessica Gruber, who runs a 100-year-old family practice in Germantown, Wisconsin, wants to use her personal skills and long-standing relationships in the community to convince more people to get the shot.
“A lot of people see a dentist and stick with them for years and years and years. Having health care providers that have that strong foundation with their patients could be beneficial toward convincing people that this is something that is good,” she says.
To get started, providers like Gruber will need to complete the requisite training and wait for doses to arrive at her facility. The CDC says it is in the process of setting up training modules to get dentists and hygienists up and running.
Mark Miller, a faculty member at the Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Dentistry, has been training providers on how to give out the shot. He also advocated for the state legislature to pass a bill allowing dentists to join the campaign.
From his experience, his students seem to know what they’re doing. After a few hours of training, including record-keeping, monitoring symptoms, patient in-take forms, and storage, the class will usually start jabbing each other as practice.
“Who’s more at ease at handling a syringe than dentists? We handle them all day long,” he said. “It’s just another thing they’re trained in. Our students can do any vaccination.”
The Call of Duty
Despite the benefits, some dentists are pushing back against the idea. There are logistical hurdles, including manpower, training, and vaccine access, that need to be resolved. Not every practice is set up to administer the shots, especially after months of decreased demand for dental services. For example, the Pfizer vaccine must be kept at ultra-cold temperatures, something many dentists’ offices aren’t equipped to do.
As Robert Crim, chief dental officer of Smile Brands, a dental services organization with providers in 670 offices across 34 states, puts it, “Being allowed to do it is one thing but being able to do it is another.”
Some providers may get a jump in business thanks to the vaccination campaign, but others may not be so lucky.
“To be honest with you, it’s not going to help our business,” Acierno says. “We’re vaccinating people that are already coming into our business. The vaccinations aren’t going to be a moneymaker. In fact, the vaccinations are going to be a money loser.”
However, Gruber believes it’s the right thing to do. “As health care providers, I think that dentists have a responsibility at times like this to be a part of the effort to contribute to public health,” she added.
If someone you know has yet to get vaccinated, they might want to try visiting their local dentist.