Reopening California: Bay Area dental hygienists concerned about returning to work

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The mission of ABC7 is to bring you stories to Build a Better Bay Area. That mission is all the more important as we look to rebuild and recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

Already, some health providers are back to offering non-emergency surgery.

And now many dental practices are struggling with how to re-open in a safe sanitary way.

RELATED: Stanford resumes non-emergency surgeries amid low positive COVID-19 employee cases

On Tuesday, ABC7 spoke to several Bay Area dental hygienists who are concerned about going back to work during the pandemic.

"I don't want to be a vector to my patients," said an East Bay hygienist, who spoke to ABC7 anonymously by phone, to protect her job.

"I know of hygienists that are back at work because their bosses have said 'you have to come back.'"

She says her boss asked her to come back to work in the next few weeks, but she declined to return immediately, and has chosen to forgo her paycheck. She says her boss was receptive to her concerns.

"I don't want to get sick. But the bigger role is I want to protect everyone in the office, I want to protect the business, I want to protect my license, and my patients!"

RELATED: Phase 2 of reopening CA businesses starts Friday, Gov. Newsom says

Last week on ABC7, Contra Costa County public health officer, Dr. Chris Farnitano, said preventative care was safe to resume.

"We're really encouraging people to get back to getting that routine care that they've been putting off, whether that's dental care or getting your mammogram," said Farnitano.

But, the California Dental Association says County health orders cannot direct dentists to go back to routine practice, because specific guidance from the state, the California Department of Public Health, has still not been released.

University of Illinois professor, and labor and employment law expert, Michael LeRoy, says CAL OSHA protects employees from being fired for exercising their safety rights.

"It's the employee's responsibility to speak up, and ask questions, or make a complaint and put it in writing. It doesn't have to be sophisticated, it doesn't have to site a specific regulation. Keep it as simple as 'I'm afraid of getting COVID, I'm very concerned for my safety or my parents or people around me.' Put it in writing, give the employer a chance to respond to it, then the onus shifts to the employer to make a response."

LeRoy advises employers and employees to "slow down and have a conversation," before firing someone or threatening to file a lawsuit.

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Many Bay Area dentistry practices have been open for emergency dental care, and now some have resumed non-emergency procedures, like crowns.

San Francisco dentist, Chris Rodriguez, has kept his portion of general dentistry practice closed during the shelter-in-place.

"During dental treatment, we are commonly exposed to aerosolized blood particles, saliva particles, and other bodily fluids, which contain a number of communicable diseases," said Rodriguez, who pointed out that because of the inherent risk of dentistry, the profession is uniquely equipped to protect against contagions.

Rodriguez has been working remotely to treat patients using telehealth and cloud technology, and plans to return to the office, when state and local guidance are in line.

To reduce aerosolization, many dentists are avoiding tools like high speed drills, polishers, and ultrasonic water scalers.

When Rodriguez reopens, he plans to use a intra-oral vacuum isolation system a lot more during treatments.

"It's simply a tooth pillow that the patient bites down on.... It creates negative pressure and removes all of the saliva and aerosolization, and significantly reduces the amount that comes out of the mouth."

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