The anticipated wait for COVID-19 vaccination has come to an end for many healthcare professionals. With the vaccine rollout picking up steam, many people in the health industry have already received both rounds of shots. Dental offices have welcomed these vaccinations as it allows them to practice and provide in-person appointments safely despite the pandemic.
However, this increase in inoculation against the virus has left many wondering if it may finally be time to loosen the protocols to help curb the spread of the infection. This relaxation of preventative processes would be a mistake, though. Protocols designed to control the spread of infection and increase safety measures for staff and patients should still apply even after widespread vaccinations.
The COVID-19 Vaccine does not Guarantee Immunity
Working in close quarters with patients, particularly being up close and personal with their mouth, and using dental tools that may cause the spread of possibly infected droplets, are concerns among dental professionals. Many worry that their chosen profession could increase the risk of transmission. The promise of protection received from the COVID-19 vaccine provides a more hopeful future for dental practitioners and their patients, considering all that goes into oral care and how high risk it could potentially be if someone were to become infected with the virus during a visit to the dentist.
The caveat here is that the virus does not work instantaneously. Research has shown that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine could take roughly 12 days after the first shot to begin providing protection. It will also take at least a few weeks to reach just 52% effectiveness. The second shot does provide further protection, but again, it takes at least one week following the follow-up dose for the vaccine to reach its 95% protection rate.
The d vaccine is also slow to action. It takes two weeks for the first shot to provide 51% protection and another two weeks for the second dose to reach 94% protection. This grace period for vaccine effectiveness could lead to further spread of the virus if those that have gotten the vaccine are no longer practicing adequate control measures and following safety protocols.
Vaccinated Individuals may still be able to Spread the Virus
The vaccine will help slow the spread of the virus; however, not enough research is available for health officials to determine if vaccinations can entirely prevent transmission. A potential issue arises because those that have the vaccine could still become exposed to the virus, and while they may not become sick, they could still become COVID-19 carriers. This carrier status could lead to further spread without the vaccinated person even realizing it.
Following strict infection controls and safety measures is critical in dental offices, particularly during this transition period. Continued vaccinations will not provide an instantaneous mark of safety. Other factors will also come into play, such as how many people receive the vaccine and the viral spread rate throughout specific communities.
For a dental office in an area with high transmission of the virus and low vaccinations, for example, abandoning safety measures and infection control protocols could lead to otherwise completely avoidable outbreaks. Until researchers have had time to address how the vaccine works fully and examine the many other factors impacting on its spread, such as an individual's aforementioned carrier status, these preventative measures should be held firm.
It's too soon to Count on Herd Immunity
Over 38 million people in the United States are already fully vaccinated. With more vaccines emerging, such as the recently approved single-dose vaccine, those numbers will continue to grow exponentially in the future. However, this does not mean that the country can achieve herd immunity just yet. Health officials have stated that achieving an adequate level of herd immunity against COVID-19 is not possible until at least 70% of the population has received their vaccinations. As it stands, roughly 11% of people are now fully vaccinated, so that number of 70% is still a long way off.
Without safety measures and protocols in place while the country waits to reach that herd immunity sweet spot, the virus could spread just as rapidly and virulently as it has done before the start of the mass vaccination program. This transmission potential poses a serious risk for those practicing in-person dentistry, particularly if they opt-out of the stricter infection control measures they have been adhering to since the outbreak began last year. A reduction in the use of tighter infection control SOPs may have a devastating impact on the fight against COVID.
Continuing Safety Measures is Vital
The CDC recommends that all dental professionals continue following the enhanced processes and procedures they have been using to curb the infection's rise. By keeping up with safety protocols during this period between the onset of the virus and the protection of the United States population through vaccination, they can continue to do their part to help lessen transmissions while also still providing proper dental health care to their patients.
The recommendations that should be kept in place include:
Continuing to screen all their patients for COVID-19 symptoms prior to making an appointment and giving them treatment
Ensure that social distancing measures are still in place at the dental office for both patients and staff
Wear all the adequate PPE as recommended throughout the pandemic
Continue to practice good hygiene such as washing hands regularly and sanitizing and disinfecting surface areas or other areas that are frequently touched
The California Dental Association also has released a "Stay The Course" series of videos providing dental practices with the tools and resources they need to follow all the infection control measures required to continue providing proper dental healthcare to their patients.
Safety and patient care are of the utmost importance, especially during these unprecedented times. Abandoning safety too soon could cause widespread transmission, which would be a step back for dental care during the global pandemic. Even when the vaccination program is complete and the U.S. has achieved herd immunity, ensuring patients' safety should still be a priority for all healthcare professionals.