On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared SARS-CoV-2 a global pandemic. Recent research published in both the Journal of the American Dental Association and the Journal of Dental Hygiene looks back on how COVID-19 impacted those responsible for delivering oral healthcare.1–3
Those working around the oral cavity were really in the crosshairs of the virus. Because patients can’t wear masks and SARS-CoV-2 transmits through airborne droplets, this group of professionals—perhaps more than any other—were vulnerable to exposure via aerosolized oral fluids such as blood and saliva. So concerned were the American Dental Association (ADA) and the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) about this risk, on March 16, 2020, they recommended that all oral health professionals in the United States postpone elective dental treatments.
Dental hygienists were significantly affected and, as the pandemic progressed, many, if they were able to continue working at all, grappled with altering infection prevention protocols, and changing up treatment modalities.
A yearlong study conducted by the ADA and ADHA assessed the impact of the pandemic on 8,902 oral health professionals between June 2020 and June 2021. Through data collected from that group via a monthly, anonymous, web-based survey, they found that symptoms for anxiety peaked in November, followed by the highest rates of depression in December.
During that time, 17.7% of oral health professionals reported feelings of anxiety, 10.7% experienced symptoms of depression, and 8.3% suffered from both. Rates were lowest among older practitioners. Higher rates of anxiety and depression were reported by dental hygienists compared to dentists.
One of the study’s authors, Stacey Dershewitz, JD, PsyD, an adjunct professor of clinical psychology and director of the Center Clinic at the George Washington University Professional Psychology Program, noted, “As the pandemic continues, it is critically important that dental healthcare workers continue to develop their ability to recognize and address signs and symptoms of mental health conditions within themselves and their colleagues, promote healthy work environments, reduce the impact of stress on the profession, and make support accessible to those who are struggling emotionally.”1
THE VACCINE DIFFERENCE
By May 2021, symptoms of both anxiety and depression were reported to subside in both groups. This appeared to coincide with the advent and availability of the vaccines. The study found that of unvaccinated oral health professionals who intended to be vaccinated, 20.6% experienced anxiety. In contrast, just 14.1% of those who were fully vaccinated reported feeling anxious.
This study, reportedly the first of its kind, indeed lends credence to the importance of mental healthcare availability for this group of workers. “The hope is that this is just the first of many steps in monitoring mental wellness of the entire oral care team,” said JoAnn Gurenlian, RDH, MS, PhD, AFAAOM, director of education and research for the ADHA.1
- Versaci MB. Dental professionals on early front lines of pandemic report anxiety, depression.
- Eldridge LA, Estrich CG, Gurenlian JR, et al. US dental health care workers’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. J Am Dent Assoc. 2022;153:740–749.
- Eldridge LA, Estrich CG, Gurenlian JR, et al. US dental health care workers’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. J Dent Hyg. 2022;96:9–11.