For Doreen Denisty, CDA, a dental assisting supervisor with the Indian Health Service (IHS), her experience during the COVID-19 pandemic has been unlike any other she’s seen in her 48 years in the dental profession.
“Working years ago during [the early days of] AIDS/HIV was scary, but that was nothing like this,” she says. “These definitely have been trying times.”
Supporting emergency care
As federal employees — with their main dental clinic located inside a hospital — Denisty and her staff are among the many dental professionals nationwide who continued working to support emergency care.
Similarly, Catherine Tilford, CDA, worked with emergency patients in an IHS clinic, during what she agrees has been one of the most challenging times of her 13-year assisting career. Tilford and her colleagues found themselves fulfilling new-normal tasks such as helping to screen patients waiting in their cars and delivering medication to them in the parking lot to promote social distancing.
“Our dental team was on the front lines every day, trying to keep our patients and providers safe,” she says.
Tilford had “no problem being on the front” during this unique time of need, she adds. “And, I can honestly say, neither did my co-workers. We are healthcare providers, just doing what needed and is still needing to be done.”
Denisty and her staff have had similar recent experiences. Her Arizona facility, with four clinic sites, provided only essential care during the spring, with plans to provide nonessential care in the summer.
During the first phase, dental practices implemented heightened precautions and social distancing. For example, like Tilford, dental assistants help to screen patients for COVID-19 symptoms in the parking lot and taking their temperatures before dentists visit them carside to assess their level of emergency.
Facing other hurdles
Aside from social-distancing concerns, the team has faced other hurdles as well. Denisty described a dwindled supply of personal protective equipment (masks, specifically) available to the team early on, adding that this is no longer an issue for their facility. She also spoke of increased concern of exposure among both patients and her staff — since their main dental clinic is in a hospital where some COVID-19 patients have been admitted.
With this ever-present fear of possible infection, Denisty admits that keeping morale up among her team of eight dental assistants has been a top challenge.
“Outside of work, and on social media, the team hears all these things — of cases in our community, about those patients in our hospital. It can be exaggerated, get big,” Denisty explains. “Hearing things, you can get down. Concern and fear can set in, and I don’t blame my staff for feeling this way.”
Denisty believes in times of uncertainty, knowledge is power, and this is especially true in the face of COVID-19. “Every morning, our team has a huddle. We’ll talk about what’s going on and focus on the facts. We talk about what we need to do to keep ourselves and our patients safe. We keep going.”
Denisty proudly notes that her team has not just persisted, but thrived, coming together to demonstrate impressive resilience.
“I can honestly say my staff has been amazing,” she elaborated. “They are here and ready to perform their duties as assigned. There have been no complaints. We’re a pretty big, close family here, and this is their community. ‘Be proud of what you’re doing,’ I tell them.
“There is just something about a dental assistant,” Denisty continues. “Like all the other dental and medical professionals on the front lines, they are always ready to help.”