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Washington’s dental hygienists worried about safety with PPE shortages

(MyNorthwest file photo)

After nearly two months of emergency-only care, regular dental work is scheduled to resume May 19. But some hygienists are worried about their safety.

Many dental offices donated their masks and gloves to hospitals when the COVID-19 crisis began, and are now sorely lacking in supply for their own workers when routine dental procedures restart. Dental clinics are especially having trouble getting enough N-95 masks, which are critical for hygienists’ safety.

Jennifer Zbaraschuk, President of the Washington Dental Hygienists Association, said N-95 masks should be worn by hygienists and changed after each patient — but right now, there aren’t enough of them.

“The PPE supply chain still appears to be fairly diminished, and there are not clear-cut minimum standards across the board,” she said.

Senator calls on Gov. Inslee for more clarification on medical, dental procedures

The problem is that some common dental tools spray the saliva of patients into the air.

“That also aerosolizes those pathogens and the virus,” Zbaraschuk said. “If that person currently happens to be asymptomatic, you could then have that floating around in your office.”

Without N-95 masks, Zbaraschuk said, hygienists are at risk during a simple cleaning or filling. She has heard that some hygienists are being told to wear less protective masks, and to wear the same masks for more than one patient.

The association is submitting safety suggestions to Gov. Inslee’s office this week, calling on the governor to only allow certain procedures to resume as more PPE becomes available.

“What we’re looking for and what he has indicated is that it would be a procedure-based, phased-in system, and one of the criteria is the PPE availability,” Zbaraschuk said.

Ideally, Zbaraschuk also would also like to see testing for patients before they come in for a visit, and regular testing every few days for dental staff members, so patients and employees alike can be protected.

She hopes for very clear guidelines from Inslee before dental procedures resume.

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