As Dental Offices Close, Try Not to Panic

Maggie Augustyn, DDS

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We are in uncharted waters. People’s reactions to COVID-19 vary in intensities. Some continue to look at it as a glamorized flu, while others are afraid to leave the house. Still others go out to stock up on toilet paper, water, soap, and canned goods.

In stores nationwide, the shelves are empty. Costco and Sam’s Club parking lots are filled to the brim, and no are carts available for those walking in. Shipments of goods from places like Target and Amazon are pushed back to the summer or later.

And though initially it might have seemed as if we all were overreacting, all signs point to the fact that it isn’t a glamorized flu. Based on the information we have, COVID-19 is not like the flu. It’s deadlier, more contagious, and more likely to severely disrupt our healthcare system.

The Impact on Dentistry

I practice in Illinois, where our state dental society is urging all dental practices to treat only patients who require emergency dental procedures, postpone elective dental treatment and procedures, and preserve personal protection equipment for emergency dental situations for the next two weeks.

Furthermore, the Illinois State Dental Society (ISDS) suggests having patients remain in their cars and notifying them to come in by phone instead of having them sit in the waiting room to further isolate the disease.  

Practices should then screen these emergency patients with a series of questions about travel history and the presence of symptoms such as fever, coughing, and shortness of breath. Patients next should wash their hands in the operatory and rinse with 1% hydrogen peroxide solution prior to any treatment rendered.

Meanwhile, public areas such as the waiting room should be cleaned and disinfected frequently. And lastly, all reading materials and toys ought to be removed from the waiting room. The ISDS hopes that implementing these measures will minimize the spread of the virus and its long-term impact on our offices.

What we are going through as practitioners and practice owners is unprecedented. The anxiety is very real and varies in magnitude. Some feel they have little to worry about. Others can’t breathe. Most of us are right in the middle of the bell curve.

The Impact on Me 

I find myself to be a fairly well balanced person and quite level-headed. I don’t scare easily. I’m a problem solver. But driving into work today, I found myself hyperventilating. I didn’t have the answers, and the unknown of that brought about a sense of panic in me. Perhaps you can relate. 

The change that is coming as a result of this virus is unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime. If we’re overreacting, we have nothing to lose. If we aren’t taking it seriously, the impact of a mistake could be on a scale grander than what we can imagine.

This is not what we are used to or what we know. Panic, then, can become commonplace until, over time, the change normalizes itself. With time, we will gain confidence in dealing with the new change.

Having said that, closing the office for two weeks, as per the recommendation of our state society, is problematic. What if the recommended guidelines are extended to six weeks or 12 weeks? Many of us aren’t prepared to go weeks without production, collection, and, thus, income. For our team members, who often live paycheck to paycheck, this is a terrible hardship.

In this morning’s huddle as I announced that we will not be seeing patients for the next two weeks, except for emergencies, I saw fear and anxiety in my team members. I saw tears gathering in their eyes at the thought of not being paid for maybe even weeks.

How in the world will they make ends meet? How will they pay rent, pay for groceries, for their phones, for electricity? Truthfully, I don’t have the answer to that. 

In Illinois, thankfully, the administration filed an emergency ruling granting workers who are furloughed due to COVID-19 access to unemployment benefits. This will reduce the guilt that I have as a practitioner over not being able to provide those living paycheck to paycheck with a way to pay for their bills. 

We have to keep things in perspective and consider safety ahead of finances, as difficult as this decision is going to be. The truth is that whatever the world will bring in the next two weeks or eight weeks, we will weather the storm. We have to. 

As practice owners, we will also go without income for maybe multiple weeks. Sadly, most of us won’t be eligible for unemployment benefits. In a time where it may be wise to invest our savings in the falling market, our emergency funds will be used for paying bills.

Another pressing concern is the fact that our economy will suffer an unprecedented all-time low. Our retirement plans and our investments will experience a significant loss, and how long before we will recover is unknown. For those close to retirement age, it may be especially devastating. They may need to continue working longer than they had planned. 

We have to be realistic about the fact that every now and again, we will suffer a spike in our anxiety and will panic. Away from the office, we will likely become restless. We don’t know how this will affect our patients and team members. And what about our kids, our spouses, and our parents? All of these questions that get stuck in our heads can push us over the edge.

So, we should stick to a recipe for how to combat those thoughts. For one, it’s important to make sure we stay in the moment. Try your best to keep your mind on task. If you find your mind wandering into the abyss of fear, try your best to counter it with mindfulness. We will have moments of weakness and moments of emotionality. There will be fear. But that’s the challenge that a significant change can bring about.

The Good News

So, is there any good news?

I’m not going to lie. I thought I shouldn’t be admitting this out loud. But I am looking forward to sleeping in and catching up on spring cleaning. I can’t wait to finally make time to take some web-based CE courses. Most likely within three days or so, I will go stir crazy, and our entire family home together for at least two weeks will likely get cabin fever. As parents, our new priorities will include homeschooling our kids and making sure they don’t spend endless hours on YouTube or Roblox.

But here is the good news. We will recover. The market will bounce back. And after the current two-week recommended office closings in many states, coming back after April 1, we will be busier than ever. We will likely need to open additional days to try and catch up on the proposed treatment plans from the previous months.

More importantly, it’s important to remember that we are all in this together. And that holds value. Sometimes knowing that there is someone out there with similar circumstances and misfortune lesses our burden. We have each other to lean on, to talk to, and to count on. 

Dr. Augustyn is a practicing general dentist. She earned a DDS from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She also has completed the course sequence with the Dawson Academy’s continuum in oral equilibration and cosmetic dentistry. She completes a minimum of 30 hours of continuing education each year as well, including orthodontics, implantology, periodontics, prosthodontics, and cosmetics. Additionally, she is a moderator on the Dental Nachos and I Love Dentistry Facebook group forums. She can be reached at maggie.augustyn@gmail.com.

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