COVID-19 has forced substantial shifts in how dentists, and many professionals, work every day. Over the past year, dentists have had a chance to learn lessons from COVID-19, reexamine the way they practice and determine if those habits still make sense in the face of a threat like COVID-19.

In “Viral pandemics and oral health: Lessons learned from HIV to SARS-CoV-2” in the journal of Oral Surgery, Oral Medicine, Oral Pathology, Oral Radiology, Dr. Lauren Patton reflects on the teachings of the past year. She writes, “Not since the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) pandemic began have we had a transformative experience in dentistry that has made us deeply reexamine our practices and come to terms with a new reality of how dentists care for their patients’ health.”

Dr. Patton lists nine lessons she learned from the pandemic, which can be loosely grouped into three categories — how dentists practice, what the field of dentistry knows (and doesn’t know) and how the health profession, as a whole, can better prepare for the next infectious disease.

The way dentists practice changed quickly as COVID-19 began to spread in the United States. Elective dental care was curtailed for several months. When dentists were allowed to resume all dental care again, enhanced infection control in dental offices was required to minimize the risk of COVID-19 spread. All dental staff began wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), toys and magazines were removed from the waiting room, patients were required to wear masks and even dental drills were studied to find ways to reduce aerosolized saliva production during procedures. The added stress of working in healthcare during the pandemic also shed light on the risk of staff burnout and the importance of prioritizing mental health

The fallout of COVID-19 and research into SARS-CoV-2 began concurrently, forcing healthcare professionals to come to terms with what they did and did not know about the virus. While COVID-19 is still not fully understood, research has come a long way since January 2020. Findings on symptomatic and asymptomatic spread, improving patient outcomes through therapeutics and the disease’s involvement of the head and neck have all impacted public policy and medical response to the virus.

Dr. Patton also emphasized the importance of using these lessons to prepare for the future. She noted the race to create a vaccine, which was done with record-breaking speed. Additionally, salivary diagnostics emerged as an important testing option for COVID-19. Since Dr. Patton’s article, more research was published on the importance of the mouth as a site for SARS-CoV-2. These rapid scientific developments to test for and treat the virus were largely responsible for the United States’ ability to quickly slow the spread of COVID-19 in the spring of 2021. In the event of future epidemics or pandemics, it will be crucial to have systems in place that allow for similar rapid development of treatments.

The response to COVID-19 showed that working together yields the best results. Coordinating such collaboration requires a person or group to take the lead. Organizations like the American Dental Association (ADA) and the New York State Dental Association (NYSDA) were pivotal in providing important national and regional updates and recommendations. Both organizations continually provided tips to dentists — from how to pause practice to how to stay safe and protect patients and staff when offices reopened. The groups’ work demonstrated that it is just as important to plan for the recovery from a crisis as it is to plan for the crisis itself.

This sort of national coordination is powerful and shows the potential of such organization, especially on a global level. As Dr. Patton writes, “We now need better mobilization of scientific collaboration globally and continued support of federal and international agencies to sustain our work in prevention and treatment for COVID-19 to prepare us for future outbreaks and sustain our global population. This is a global health crisis, and it requires a global response.”

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