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Dental offices trying to reopen show how hard back-to-work can get

Wendy Ruderman and Sarah Gantz, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Business News

The dentist responded that taking temperatures could create a false sense of security and wouldn't prevent asymptomatic spread, the hygienist said and text messages show.

The hygienist also complained about having to fudge chart notes stating a routine cleaning was necessary to "prevent irreversible damage," in order to meet state Health Department recommendations.

"I took a stand and said, 'I'm not willing to risk my license or my family's safety,' " said the hygienist, who has a 6-year-old with a kidney condition and a 4-year-old with asthma. "And they basically said, 'So is this your resignation?' And I had to say, 'yes.' "

Since the Board of Dentistry can penalize practices for not following safety protocols, hygienists are in a difficult spot: Stay quiet to keep their jobs or report their boss to regulators, said hygienist Lisa Maisonet.

"Some dentists are twisting the guidelines so they can make the decision to see anybody they want right now," including doing procedures with instruments that create visible aerosols, by deeming it as "clinically necessary," Maisonet said. "(Hygienists) are being put into a tough situation. Their licenses are really being compromised and it's like -- they have to feed their families."

Ross, the 39-year-old hygienist who was raised in West Philadelphia and now lives in Newark, Del., said her employer plans to reopen for emergency cases only in early June. She said she has reservations about returning to work but sees little option, although right now, she doesn't know who is going to watch her children, ages 10 and 6.

"If schools and camps were to reopen, I would have to go back because I wouldn't have an excuse not to. It would be like a fear of losing my job," Ross said. "I do want to go back to work. I love my job. I will go back as soon as I can."

 

MacCrory, who runs the dental staffing service, said if dentists can't guarantee hygienists a 40-hour workweek because they don't have enough patient volume, there's little incentive to put their health at risk and return to work. That's because some hygienists are earning more money not working, between collecting unemployment pay and an additional $600 a week from the federal government in pandemic relief. But that won't last forever.

Andrea Pelonero, a 50-year-old hygienist from North Jersey, one of the nation's hardest-hit regions for the coronavirus, said she doesn't understand why hygienists are worried, given that they've always had to take precautions against infectious disease, such as HIV.

"I assume everybody is a bag full of infection at every visit, so what exactly do I need to do differently now?" Pelonero said. "It's like being a nurse -- you knew this when you signed up for it, so I don't understand, like people don't want to do it anymore because now they're scared. What? Weren't you afraid of getting AIDS before? Seriously."

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