Open Up? Maine Dentists Face Conflicting Guidance On When To Resume Office Visits

May 4, 2020

Dentists in Maine say they still don’t know when they can reopen under Gov. Janet Mills’ plan announced last week.

The Mills administration has said that dentists could resume usual services as early as May 1 if they follow federal safety guidance. But the U.S. CDC still recommends that dentists postpone elective procedures such as cleanings. The conflicting guidance has left dentists in a lurch, and they say they are getting no help from the state.

The day after Mills announced her plan to reopen the economy in four stages, members of her administration answered questions during a daily press briefing. One of those questions had to do with which stage dentists fell under.

“Dentists are part of elective medical procedures, and are part of Stage 1,” said Heather Johnson, the commissioner of the Department of Economic and Community Development.

“As a drinker of Diet Coke, I am particularly focused on when my dentist’s office will reopen,” said Dr. Nirav Shah of the Maine Center for Disease Control.

Shah is in for a wait, according to Dr. Jonathan Shenkin, a pediatric dentist in Augusta.

“We’re not reopening. We’re closed. I mean, we’re closed to regular patient care,” he says.

Even though the Mills administration has said that dentists can reopen, Shenkin says the guidance that dentists are directed to in order to open safely says otherwise. It’s a link to U.S. CDC website which recommends that dental services be limited to emergency visits only.

“The challenge we have is that dentistry will not reopen in Maine until the CDC changes that guidance about emergency dental care. And we don’t know if that will be days, weeks, months or even years,” he says.

The announcement that dentists could reopen also put hygienists in a tailspin, says Sarah Clark, the president of the Maine Dental Hygienists Association.

“That kind of threw everybody into this moment of sheer panic of, we don’t know what we’re supposed to do yet,” she says. “Are we going to be practicing against the CDC guidelines, which recommend postponing elective treatment still at this time?”

Dentists don’t want to practice against that federal guidance, says Maine Dental Association President Dr. Brad Rand. Instead of waiting for it to change, he says there is another option: the state could create its own guidance. But Rand says attempts at meeting with state officials to create a plan haven’t gained any traction.

“They indicated they didn’t they didn’t ‘have the bandwidth’ to be able to create regulations for each of the specialties and subspecialties in health, and so they said we just really need to go to this CDC guidance,” he says.

A spokeswoman for Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services referred questions about the issue to a guidance document issued last week by the Maine Board of Dental Practice. That document reiterates that dental practitioners can only perform emergency care until U.S. CDC guidance changes or be subject to possible disciplinary action.

“And so that’s really scaring dentists. They don’t dare to see patients right now,” he says.

As Maine dentists wait indefinitely, Shenkin says their counterparts in most other states are preparing to reopen within the next couple of weeks. Shenkin, a former vice president of the American Dental Association who says he’s among a handful of advisors who developed national guidelines on the coronavirus, says other states worked with dentists to create plans to reopen long before they were announced.

“In Maine we did the opposite. We did nothing. There was no communication with the profession up until the last minute,” he says.

Which, Shenkin says, was just a couple of hours before the reopening plan was announced. He says dentists in Maine stand ready to work with the administration moving forward, but the clock is ticking for those dentists trying to stay afloat and patients with minor issues that could develop into emergencies.