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Should dental professionals be worried about the coronavirus?

With the new respiratory virus outbreak rapidly working its way across the world, it’s wise to take preventative measures to protect yourself as a dental professional. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 2,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported globally, with 56 of those cases resulting in death. While there are only two confirmed cases of coronavirus in the US to date, so little is known about this advancing infection that it’s likely many more people across the globe are infected. 

Neil Ferguson, an infectious diseases epidemiology expert at Imperial College London, told the Guardian newspaper that there may be as many as 100,000 cases of coronavirus in China alone. He added that his model suggests that in reality, the number of coronavirus cases could be anywhere between 30,000 and 200,000. 

What is coronavirus?

A coronavirus is a prevalent cause of upper respiratory infections which can range from the common cold to severe life-threatening pneumonia. These viruses are known as zoonoses, meaning they infect selected animals and spread between them. However, a coronavirus also has the potential to spread from an animal to a human, especially when mutations within the virus occur. 

The latest outbreak began in late December 2019 when Chinese health authorities reported a number of cases of viral pneumonia to WHO. Many of the people who had fallen ill had previously had contact with an animal and seafood market in Wuhan in eastern China. 

Currently, there are seven known coronaviruses with the ability to infect humans. Two of the most well-known are the 2002 SARS and the 2012 MERS, both of which were the result of zoonotic events. Scientists anticipate same is likely to be true for the new coronavirus, named 2019-nCoV by the World Health Organization. Just like SARS and MERS, 2019-nCoV is also associated with human-to-human transmission. 

How concerning is it?

One of the most concerning aspects of the coronavirus is that there is currently no cure or effective treatment program. Scientists are doing all they can to understand the virus and Chinese health authorities have published its full genome on international databases.

Another troubling factor is that the transmission efficiency of the virus remains unknown. There is news of a case in China where one hospital inpatient infected 14 healthcare workers. Following this discovery, scientists believe that it’s possible some patients, known as super spreaders, can be more infectious than others. At this time, it’s not certain whether the patient was a super spreader or whether the virus is becoming increasingly adept at human-to-human transmission. 

How it’s passed on

Even though it’s not clear how this specific virus spreads, coronaviruses are usually transferred through droplets which contain large particles that usually can only be suspended for 3-6ft in the air before dissipating. As a comparison point, measles and chickenpox have the ability to spread through significantly smaller droplets over much greater distances. 

This information tells us that sneezes and coughs from an infected person presumably spread the virus. At this point, it’s too early to determine whether other transmission routes are feasible. For dental professionals who spend a lot of time in the vicinity of the nasal and oral cavities of patients, you’re at a greater risk of infection than other medical practitioners. 

Prevention measures 

There are prevention measures in place around the world to stop the coronavirus from spreading any further than it already has. China has taken action by shutting off trains and flights between some affected cities, essentially quarantining tens of millions of people. 

Public health officials in many other countries, including the US, have also adopted measures to prevent the further spread of the virus. These include complex health screenings in major airports throughout the US for people who have arrived from Wuhan. This should significantly reduce the number of infected people who are able to enter the US. But since information regarding early symptoms and the incubation period is largely unclear, it’s likely at least some infected people will still pass through. 

How to protect yourself in the dental practice

Fortunately, there are further steps you can take as a dental practitioner to protect your health. In addition to your usual health and safety measures, it’s wise to practice the following steps until more information is available or the outbreak has been controlled:

  • Ask patients about their potential risk factor. Before your patients’ appointments, contact them to ask if they’ve recently been in Wuhan or have been in direct contact with anyone who has. If they answer positively and they haven’t been tested for the virus, you should consider cancelling the appointment for the wellness of you and your staff.
  • Wash your hands regularly. Use antibacterial soap and spend at least 20 seconds washing your hands each time.
  • Sneeze and cough into tissues or your inner elbow — not into your hands.
  • Avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes with your hands.
  • CDC and OSHA recommend you adopt a combination of standard, contact and airborne precautions. These include wearing gowns, gloves, disposable respirators and masks.
  • Avoid anyone with signs of a respiratory tract infection.

Coronavirus symptoms to look for in patients

Although it’s unlikely you’ll find yourself directly treating a patient with coronavirus, it’s not impossible. Here are some symptoms to look out for which suggest the person you’re treating could be infected:

  • Nasal congestion
  • Headache
  • Cough
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Chest tightness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

While you can clearly recognize some of these symptoms in your patients, others are more discreet and difficult to determine. It’s worth considering contacting patients before their appointments and asking if they’re experiencing any of the above symptoms. If this isn’t possible, creating a quick form with tick boxes containing the above symptoms and asking patients to fill them out when they arrive in the waiting room is an effective alternative. 

Just because a patient is experiencing one of more of the above symptoms certainly doesn’t mean they’re infected with the coronavirus. It could simply be indicative of a cold or other upper respiratory infection. Regardless, it’s worth assessing the situation before you potentially put yourself and your team at risk. 

If you’re a dental professional working as an independent contractor with Cloud Dentistry and you’ve got experience treating patients with standard, contact or airborne viruses, you should definitely update your online profile with information about your experience. This will undoubtedly help you stand out as dental practices look for temporary help while the virus has yet to be controlled. Here are some more tips on how to craft your resume or online profile to make you rise above the rest

If you own a dental practice and you’re looking to hire dental staff, pay extra attention to dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants who list this type of experience on their profile. Not only will they help make sure proper best practices are being followed to limit the spread of the virus, but they’ll be able to pass on their knowledge to the rest of your staff, too. 

Should you be worried?

The average person in the US is at an extremely low risk of catching the new coronavirus. Taking into consideration the current rate at which the virus is spreading and the lack of information available at this time, it’s likely the number of infections and deaths will continue to rise. However, even though we’re dealing with a serious and not yet fully understood pathogen, it’s important not to panic. 

While healthcare workers, such as dental professionals, are at an increased risk of infection if they unexpectedly treat someone with upper respiratory symptoms who has recently traveled to an affected region, the odds are still incredibly low of them developing the virus. 

Many people who do contract the coronavirus recover within just a couple of days. So far, reports show that it’s only selected people, such as the very young, the elderly and people with a compromised immune system, who have the potential to develop a more grievous infection, like pneumonia or bronchitis.