Dental offices around West Virginia were trying to resume routine appointments this week, but many already have too little personal protective equipment to make that possible.
Their plight was illustrated by the delivery of big boxes that looked like they would contain ample supplies.
“The box was like 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. We looked in one and there were five masks and five shields,” said Richard Stevens, executive director of the West Virginia Dental Association.
Dean Meadows, president of the West Virginia Emergency Management Council, had a similar reaction when he peered into a big open box.
“We opened the boxes and that’s all that was inside,” Meadows said. “It was kind of shock to open up those big boxes and see five facemasks and five shields. It took longer to open the box than it did to count what was inside.”
Each man expressed surprise at the relatively small numbers of supplies but also gratitude that the equipment had been delivered at all.
It was donated protective equipment that was collected and delivered by the West Virginia National Guard and then distributed to local dentists offices by county emergency managers.
Asked about the supplies during a Wednesday news briefing, West Virginia Adjutant Gen. James Hoyer acknowledged the effects of a national supply shortage of personal protective equipment.
“As you pointed out, there is still a national issue with PPE and particularly small, individual organizations attempting to gain PPE,” Hoyer said.
“And we continue to look, from a state perspective, to see how consolidated efforts can help with those.”
Meadows, who leads the organization representing 911 directors around the state, said he wished more could have been provided. But supply and demand are affecting everyone, he said.
“The fact of the matter is, you’ve got 700-some dentists in the state and you’re splitting it up between all of them,” he said. “It was not a big supply, but it was something. I thought it was a good gesture, but it’s true there wasn’t a whole lot too.”
The story of big boxes and short supplies is just an example of the protective equipment issues that dental offices are facing, said Stevens, who leads the organization representing dentists around the state.
“It actually boils down to each dentist, there are 760-some, each received about five facial shields and five surgical masks. We’re appreciative of it, don’t misunderstand me,” he said.
“But it will serve for just a brief period of time, quite frankly.”
Dental offices had been open for emergency procedures throughout West Virginia’s pandemic precautions.
Then on May 4, dental offices got the state’s go-ahead to resume normal appointments such as six-month cleanings.
However, the West Virginia Board of Dentistry established its own return-to-work date of May 11, which was this Monday.
A task force established by the dentistry board established personal protective equipment requirements for reopening that includes N95 masks or Level 3 surgical masks, eye protection with face shields and gowns.
That is gear that would be used in dentists offices under normal circumstances, Stevens said, but the need is heightened because of the coronavirus pandemic.
He estimated two-thirds to three-quarters of West Virginia dentists offices had enough of that equipment on hand — for now — and were able to resume normally this week.
But that left a quarter to a third still seeking enough protective gear to get back up and running.
“Categorically you could say that not all dentists are going to have sufficient quantity of product that they can service,” he said.
Those that have enough right now might quickly run through it, he said.
Surgical masks may be used a time or two before they have to be discarded, Stevens said.
Face shields are meant to put a barrier between the patient’s open mouth and the dentist’s or hygienist, but they need to be cleaned before attending to another patient.
“:So sometimes that shield may last one time. It may last five or six times. It’s not a continuing operation. They’re eventually discarded in very short periods of time,” Stevens said.
So, in short order, dentists who currently have enough will need more. They are not the only ones who need such equipment, so it’s unclear whether orders can be met adequately.
N95 masks are ideal, Stevens said.
“But, nobody can get it. Hell, it’s not available.”
The uncertainty of supplies, the increased expense of protective equipment and a reduced ability to run normal operations efficiently will lead to the end of some dental practices, Stevens predicted.
“This event that occurred here about two months ago now has surpassed any similar event that dentists in West Virginia, probably countrywide, have ever experienced. It’s just a new phenomenon,” he said.
“There’s going to be some dental practices that are going to close.”