COVID-19 has not given anyone a reason to smile. But if you want to smile at something else, at least now your teeth can sparkle. Dental offices in Illinois are re-opening, after the statewide stay-at-home order closed them in mid-March. But what you’ll see now is very different.

“I wear a KN95 mask,” says Dr. Terri Tiersky, “then a level one mask over that. A face shield. A gown over my scrubs. And a head covering.”

Dr. Tiersky is an Evanston native who practices in Skokie. She’s also president of the 4,700-member Chicago Dental Society. “When we shut down on March 14,” she says,” I had no idea that would be my last day there until June 2.

Dentists and hygienists can face a higher risk of catching COVID-19 than do many other medical professionals, because of “aerosolization,” the spray which kicks out of a patient’s mouth from drills, water, and air. That’s why dentists look different now.  It’s also why you have to wear a mask when you walk into the office, and get your temperature taken as well.  

Dentists were only allowed to handle emergencies from mid-March until mid-May, but have now gotten back to routine cleanings, cavity filling, and other non-urgent procedures.

After being closed for two-and-a-half months Evanston dentist Dr. Stamata Blanas said she had to reschedule nearly two hundred patients, some “more than once.”  Still, she says “our patients are really amazing people. They completely understood.”

Dr. Blanas in her protective gear.

Even though her practice has resumed, Dr. Blanas says it’s only running at about 50% capacity. One patient is allowed in at a time. Nobody else is in the waiting room.

Besides taking patients’ temperatures and oxygen levels, Dr. Blanas and her staff take their own temperatures three or four times a day, “to make sure we’re not potentially ill.” Much more time is needed to clean and sanitize the operatory after the patient leaves, using disinfectants and air purifiers.

One major issue dentists face is getting supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).  Early on in the pandemic, Dr Teirski says dentists were asked to donate their PPE to hospitals and physicians, thousands of items. Now that dentists are back open, the law of supply and demand has pushed up the cost of PPE. Finding supplies, she says, has been a challenge, “although it’s getting better.”

Dennis King of Dr. Blanas’ staff behind a new plexiglas partition at the office.

Dr. Blanas says she ordered PPE early, in January, “when I saw China shut down.” The COVID outbreak began in that country. “I told my staffers to order PPE. I knew there would be a shortage. I didn’t know we’d have to shut down. I just wanted the gloves, masks and gowns.”

Dentists now face the double challenge of higher costs, and lower revenue. PPE is more expensive, but there are fewer patients due to coronavirus precautions. At least for awhile, both dentists say, it is the “new normal.”

In fact, “new normals” happen more than you might think. Dr. Tiersky says the AIDS epidemic led dentists to wear masks and gloves. “That became routine,” she says. Until there’s a coronavirus vaccine, she says, expect the differences you’re seeing now to continue.

But at least dental patients are returning, realizing, Dr. Tiersky says, that “oral health is very important. We have to do everything that’s right to keep everyone safe.”

Dr. Blanas says it’s nice to see her regulars return. “This community built my practice,” she says. “Evanston is my family.”

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Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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