Dentists step up to vaccinate across the country

Complete: Dr. Asad Salman and a patient celebrate a shot she was given at his dental practice in Barstow, California.

Barstow, Calif. —Asad Salman, D.D.S., wanted to do his part in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I wanted to help out,” he said. “Out of my heart.”

During his lunch break, he vaccinates about 10 people each weekday, regardless of whether they are his dental patients or not. By the end of first week of April, he had vaccinated more than 400 people.

“It’s a great feeling,” he said. “It’s a blessing.”

Dr. Salman is just one of the multitudes of dental team members who have pitched in to volunteer as the opportunities to vaccinate have increased.

On March 12, the White House amended regulations to expand the pool of health professionals who can administer the vaccine, including dentists.

While some states had already permitted dentists to give the vaccine, the new update applied to all states. The goal, according to the White House, is to have enough vaccinators as the supply of doses continues to increase and more and more people become eligible for vaccination.

Stepping up in Seattle

Access to care: Dr. Sam Wakim vaccinates a patient while the patient waits for her scheduled dental appointment at Zufall Health Center in Dover, New Jersey.

Many dentists didn’t have to wait until March 12 to find ways to help.

One is Bryan J. Williams, D.D.S., a semi-retired pediatric dentist and orthodontist who is the former director of the Department of Dental Medicine at Seattle Children’s Hospital and also former pediatric dentist in the Swedish Medical Center Dental Residency Program in Washington state.

His first day of vaccinating others was Jan. 26.

As semi-retired, he purposefully set up his personal schedule to keep Tuesdays and Thursdays relatively open, he said, “in case a good opportunity came up.”

This was it. On Jan. 7, Washington state’s Department of Health issued a statement that dentists would be allowed to vaccinate.

“I felt that by vaccinating I had a great chance to help the community,” Dr. Williams said. “Also I was at a point in my life where I was completely in my comfort zone and I wanted to push myself to learn a new skill set, one which had value for others and forced me to really think and learn.”

He said he had no problem learning how to administer the vaccines.

“The truth of the matter is that dentists are good at giving injections,” Dr. Williams said. “This is a big part of all of our lives and we do it well. In fact, once you learn the basics of giving an injection in the deltoid muscle, it is much easier than doing a mandibular block in a wiggling patient where if you are off target by two millimeters the block doesn’t take.”

Dr. Williams found the experience, in which he continues to engage at Lumen Field (the home of the Seattle Seahawks), to be a refreshing change of pace.

“When I started at the clinic, those eligible for vaccination were senior citizens, which was particularly interesting for me given my dental career was working mostly with children with severe special needs in hospital environments,” he said. “It was a thrill for me to work with a whole different group of patients. My oldest patient so far was a spunky lady who was two weeks shy of her 100th birthday. The other striking difference from my professional life was working with patients who were overjoyed at getting a shot. This isn’t something us dentists find in our normal work life.”

Someone else volunteering at Lumen Field is Carrie York, D.D.S., a dentist in the Seattle area, on Mercer Island.

“The patients who come in are grateful to be vaccinated, and all of the volunteers there feel like we are doing good things and are helping people, ”Dr. York said. “I am a fan of volunteering to help people, especially when it is something I feel strongly about and can do fairly easily. I find the atmosphere uplifting and positive, and like [that] I am helping the world get better.”

Onward in Oregon

Mark A. Miller, D.M.D., assistant professor in the department of restorative dentistry at the Oregon Health & Science University’s School of Dentistry, said dental students he helped train were on the forefront of administering COVID-19 vaccinations in December and January to OHSU students and employees.

“I am so proud of our students and colleagues who have hit the ground running, willing to step up and help out whoever and wherever and whatever is needed to turn the corner in our fight against COVID-19.”

Special delivery: Dr. Michael Riccobene administers the vaccine to one of his patients in his Goldsboro, North Carolina, office.

Dr. Miller said it has been a great opportunity for dentists and dental students to get involved with a massive effort to provide life-saving vaccinations to people, including the underserved members of the population.

“Dentists want to be involved as key members of the health care team,” Dr. Miller said. “More people see their dentists on a regular basis than their physicians, so why not pitch in and help? The response from dentists in Oregon has been tremendous. Who knew that when the efforts of the Oregon Dental Association and OSU prompted the 2019 Oregon legislature to pass a bill allowing dentists with proper training to administer all types of vaccines that it would be put in to use so quickly and become such a vital resource in our efforts to combat the pandemic?”

Rickland G. Asai, D.M.D., former ADA trustee, retired from practicing in 2019 with the idea that he would have more time to volunteer.

“After a retirement vacation in the summer of 2019, I was trying to figure out just what that retirement would look like,” Dr. Asai said. “Then COVID-19 arrived and upset the apple cart, so to speak. Here in Oregon, the dental school and the dental association successfully lobbied the state legislature in 2019 to allow dentists to administer any and all vaccinations with additional training. So when COVID-19 arrived and the vaccines began to get emergency use authorization, I thought, ‘Gee, I can get the training and do vaccinations as part of my volunteer service.’”

It made sense for him and other dentists to get involved, Dr. Asai said.

“As we are all too familiar with the potential spread of infectious disease by aerosols, we can not only provide the vaccination but also discuss the importance of masking, social distancing and hand washing, as we are so familiar with infection control in our offices on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “Certainly we had to tweak what we were doing for infection control, but it was easier for us than many.”

Being retired, he felt that he had the time to travel to some more rural areas to help out.

“I did make a three-hour drive to help out in a rural county where agricultural and food processing workers were being targeted for vaccinations due to close interpersonal workspace conditions,” he said. “The limitation of available vaccine and rolling eligibility have created a huge desire to obtain the vaccine such that when some did arrive and we gave them their shot, they were literally so grateful that several were brought to tears of joy. That was impactful for me to experience and observe.”

Shoulders across America

Kenneth J. Hofmann, D.M.D., has volunteered many hours with Smile Kentucky through the Louisville Dental Society.

“When I saw the need for injectors of the COVID-19 vaccines, I wanted to help,” Dr. Hofmann said. “As dentists we are happy to serve the needs of our patients.
During this pandemic, vaccine administration is another way we can increase the health of our patients.”

Zufall Health Center, in Dover, New Jersey, is using a novel way to vaccinate many of its patients, said Sam Wakim, D.M.D., the center’s chief dental officer.

The center is vaccinating willing patients who have already scheduled appointments for dental check-ups, partials and dentures, in essence giving them shots while they wait to see the dentist.

Progress: Dr. Rickland Asai vaccinates a patient in April in Boardman, Oregon.

“This is important to us because New Jersey’s COVID-19 rate remains among the highest in the nation, and we want to take every opportunity to get our underserved patients vaccinated,” he said.

Dr. Wakim said getting the vaccine at the dentist’s office increases access for patients to get vaccinated as well as providing an opportunity to address vaccine hesitancy since dentists are trusted health care providers.

“Many of our patients at Zufall are working poor and essential workers who can’t afford to take time off for medical and dental appointments,” Dr. Wakim said. “We see great value in making the vaccines accessible and available at the time of an existing appointment. Our experience so far has been that patients are thrilled to be getting their vaccine prior to their dental appointment.”

Riccobene Associates Family Dentistry in North Carolina began offering the Moderna vaccine on April 14 at one of its practices, with plans to expand it to all 38 of its practices in the coming months, said Michael Riccobene, D.D.S., who opened Riccobene Associates Family Dentistry in 2000.

The practice called patients the day before their appointments to ask if they would like to receive the vaccine while they are in the office, and Dr. Riccobene’s staff sent an email blast to all of its patients letting them know that the office is available to administer the vaccine. Spouses, even if they aren’t patients, are invited as well.

“I’ve always thought we should be part of the solution,” said Dr. Riccobene. “It’s an access to care issue.”

Dr. Riccobene said administering the vaccine reminds him of why he enrolled in dental school.

“We are front-line health care providers who play a vital role in the overall comprehensive care of our patients,” he said.

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