Dentist, eye doctor grapple with new COVID-19 norms

Routine visits are suspended, but offices stay open to free up space in emergency rooms, urgent cares

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Routine dental and eye care has been on hold in Arizona since mid-March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced those offices to suspend everything but emergency treatment to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, and to conserve medical equipment and supplies.

Some offices across the state have temporarily closed until restrictions are lifted, but others are staying open to alleviate the strain on emergency rooms and urgent care facilities, which often don't have dental or eye specialists onsite.

“If you’ve got tooth pain or swelling in your mouth that you would normally got to the dentist for, still go to the dentist for it,” Dr. Don Parker, owner of Sundance Dental Group and Orthodontics in Buckeye, advised via telephone Friday, March 27. “Please don’t go to the emergency room or urgent care. Call your regular dentist and if they aren’t open, find one that can see you.”

Dr. Beth Pyle-Smith, an optometrist who owns Estrella Mountain Eye Care in Avondale, agreed.

“Stay out of the ER and urgent care,” she said via telephone Friday. “If you have any concerns about your eye health, call. We can do telemedicine, or if it’s something that requires an in-person visit like something in your eye, we will set up an appointment.”

Sundance also offers telemedicine appointments, which allows patients to connect with their doctors via video using smartphones, tablets or computers.

Like other businesses across the country, both offices have been scrambling to serve patients and to stay afloat as they adapt to the rapid changes associated with COVID-19.

They’ve implemented staff changes, altered office hours, amped up cleaning and disinfection, and ask patients if they have traveled outside the country, been exposed to the coronavirus or have symptoms like a cough or fever. For the first time ever, they are taking patients’ temperatures before they are seen. Sundance requires a fever lower than 100.4 degrees to be seen; Estrella eye care 99 degrees or lower.

Last week, Sundance had a walk-in patient with a fever who said she had come into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, Mr. Parker said.

Though she had no other symptoms, “we did have to tell her she would have to reschedule,” he said. “She is in self-quarantine for 14 days.”

Staffing adjustments vary

As one of the largest dental practices in the West Valley, Sundance usually has a staff of 25 onsite to serve a steady stream of patients arriving for services ranging from routine exams and cleanings to root canals, fillings and emergencies. Today, it’s just Mr. Parker and an assistant onsite seeing an average of seven to 10 emergency patients a day, and one or two office staff members answering phones, screening walk-ins and scheduling routine appointments at least a month out.

The rest of the staff is on paid leave, though Mr. Parker said he wasn’t sure how long the practice will be able to continue paying them.

Estrella eye care typically has two optometrists and nine staff members onsite on any given day, with 30 patients scheduled for eye exams, and more picking up contacts and glasses.

“Now we see four to five patients a day on average,” Ms. Pyle-Smith said. “Yesterday, there were no patients, except for pickups.”

To keep everyone employed and to ensure there are fewer than 10 people in the building at one time, the office has gone to a half-on, half-off schedule with one doctor and half the staff onsite full-time for two weeks, then switching with the other crew.

Precautions become paramount

Medical professionals typically follow best practices to prevent contamination and infection as part of their daily routines, but both doctors said their offices have implemented additional precautions to keep their patients, and themselves, safe.

They’ve rearranged their lobbies, pulled out chairs that cannot easily be wiped down and disinfect surfaces every 20 minutes. Protective gowns, and surgical masks and gloves are in short supply as hospitals treat more and more COVID-19 patients, but each office still has them on hand and are using them. Both doctors said they take their own safety as seriously as the safety of their patients.

“It’s very scary,” Ms. Pyle-Smith said, noting that because Estrella eye care has temporarily suspended walk-ins, staff keeps the doors locked to prevent someone from coming in unexpectedly.

Sundance Dental still accepts emergency walk-ins, but patients are separated, and if needed, they wait in their vehicles for staff to text them when it’s their turn to be seen.

Mr. Parker said dentists are always at extreme risk of exposure to viruses due to the nature of their work, and while working during a pandemic makes him nervous, he is committed to providing emergency care to those who need it right now.

“I have a family of six kids and a wife at home to keep safe,” he said. “But we have to do what we have to do to keep people out of the ER.”

Kelly O’Sullivan can be reached at kosullivan@newszap.com or 760-963-1697. For up-to-date local reporting on all things COVID-19, Independent Newsmedia has created a webpage dedicated to coverage of the novel coronavirus: #AZNEWSMEDIA

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