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How dental practices should handle the coronavirus face mask shortage

Taking appropriate action to protect yourself against infections in the dental practice is essential. Especially during a global outbreak. One of the most effective ways to stop the spread of COVID-19 is to wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). This includes gloves, impermeable smock, protective eyewear and medical/surgical mask. But what do you do when you can’t get the supplies you need to protect yourself?

Why there’s a mask shortage 

China is the world's leading manufacturer of medical masks. The country produces up to 20 million of them every day. Since the latest coronavirus outbreak, domestic demand for medical masks has shot up to 50-60 million per day. With this information, it’s not surprising you’re struggling to order enough medical masks to keep your dental practice open.

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Retailers throughout the world are running out of masks and prices from online suppliers, such as Amazon, have surged to hundreds of dollars per box. This means the solution to the shortage isn’t as simple as finding an alternative supplier to buy your masks from.

To match the incredibly high demand, Time reports some Chinese companies are dedicating part of their task force to making masks. Foxconn, a company which makes Apple iPhones in China, has temporarily switched some of its production to masks and aims to make 2 millions masks each day. Chinese retailers are even looking to source masks from overseas. Vietnam has exported a significant number of masks to China, while Indonesia has received a large order for the protective gear. 

How it’s affecting dental practices

Anna Yarrow, a dental practice manager from Withers Dental in Toowoomba, Australia, said: “A lot of our regular suppliers have now put limits on the number of boxes we can buy. We’re limited to about 2-3 boxes a week, which is nowhere near enough to get us through our normal day of patients.”

Karen Fun-Harris, a dentist in Ottawa, Canada, said the rationing forced her to change suppliers and pay more to ensure she has enough masks. When her usual supplier ran out, she discovered she could still buy small quantities from other suppliers, but at severely inflated prices. Before the outbreak, she usually paid $7-$9 for a box of 50 masks. Due to the shortage, her suppliers are now demanding $16-$18 per box.

Many dental practices across the world are reporting similar circumstances of poor rationing and price increases. Some are relying on backup supplies of medical masks. But these will eventually run out, too. Since proper PPE is essential in dentistry, what are dentists meant to do if they can’t secure adequate numbers of masks?

Average dental practice mask use

The UK, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Canada have been most severely impacted by the coronavirus face mask shortage. But the United States could soon be suffering, too. 

The BDA (British Dental Association) confirmed that all dental practices in the UK are currently restricted to ordering a maximum of 100 masks per day. Some small practices are using their allowance completely each day, while larger practices are running out of supplies entirely. According to the BDA, a combination of supply problems and panic buying are responsible for the shortage.

A typical dental office with one dentist can easily go through 250 medical masks in one week. A larger practice with multiple dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants can use up much higher numbers.

Since wearing a medical mask while treating patients is an essential part of infection control in dentistry, practices could be left with no other option but to cancel appointments or temporarily close their doors if they can’t source enough masks. 

What dental practices can do

As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, it’s more important than ever to protect yourself. To ensure you can still keep the doors to your practice open while looking after everyone in your office, follow our advice:

Avoid stockpiling

One of the reasons many places are experiencing a medical mask shortage is due to over-buying. Do your part by calculating how many masks you use in your practice each day and use this figure to assist in ordering. Make sure you order enough to continue practicing, but don’t panic buy. Purchasing more than you need stops other dental professionals and medical workers from being able to protect themselves and drives the price up for everyone.

According to a message received by an online seller, eBay is banning the selling of medical masks, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. This simple step should go a long way in making these products much more widely available for the people who really need them at an affordable price. 

Shop with other suppliers

If your usual supplier can’t sell you enough medical masks, look to other suppliers to meet your demand. Some manufacturers are restricting orders. But if you place multiple orders with different companies, you might just be able to secure enough medical masks to get you through.

Make each mask count

Medical masks must be changed between treating patients and if they becomes wet. To help make your supply last longer, try to avoid getting masks wet or damaged so you only have to change them between treating different patients. 

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Prioritize safety

As of March 6th, the coronavirus has a mortality rate of 3.4%. Until the outbreak is under control, your priorities must be to protect your patients, your staff and yourself by reducing the spread of the virus in any way you can.

If this means cancelling appointments or reducing your operating hours because you can’t source enough medical masks to meet your demand, so be it. Experiencing a temporary drop of income is remarkably preferable to putting yourself and others at risk of such a potentially dangerous disease.