Ohio State Dental Journal

How the College of Dentistry Remained Open During the Pandemic

The half-walls in the pre-doctoral clinics that were once so efficient in helping faculty supervise students suddenly became an impediment to patient and provider safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The college’s solution? Based on feedback from safety, medical, and engineering experts, the college used Plexiglas to extend the operatory walls to the ceiling, installed hospital-grade curtains at each operatory entrance, and placed high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in those areas where aerosol-generating procedures would be completed. Now, faculty members move in and out of safe, upgraded operatories to supervise students.

Never has the public’s focus on health professionals been more concentrated than it has been during the COVID-19 pandemic. And rightly so. With the science around the virus unfolding in real time before our eyes, it became apparent early in the pandemic that there was much medical researchers did not know. Faced with the challenge of a once-in-a-century pandemic and the responsibility to continue providing oral health care to Ohioans in need, members of the College of Dentistry’s senior leadership team quickly mobilized to determine how the college’s dental practitioners could continue to safely treat patients.

As with most dental offices, the college’s first step in the early days of the pandemic was to temporarily stop routine dental treatments. Student practitioners were sent home to shelter in place while a small number of faculty, residents, and attendings remained to provide dental care to patients with emergent needs. Faced, like the rest of the nation, with a shortage of personal protective equipment, the college appealed to its alumni to help amass enough infrared thermometers to complete required health checks to detect symptoms of the virus. Alumni came through, despite their own challenges to ensure their dental practices were safe, and donated enough new infrared thermometers to assist in a robust health check process established by the medical center.

To ensure safe social distancing, patient visits in the college’s clinics, which typically see 400- plus patients a day, were reduced to an average of 15 emergency visits a day. This significant reduction—coupled with the required health checks—enabled the college to continue providing safe dental treatment to patients who were physically spread among the more than 100 dental operatories and care rooms throughout Postle Hall.

Operatories after Covid retrofitting
The college retrofit the walls of the student and resident operatories to raise them from chest- to ceiling-height and hang hospital-grade curtains at each operatory entrance.

The college was also not immune to the nationwide challenge of sourcing N95 respirators. Through collaborative efforts with The OSU Wexner Medical Center (OSUWMC) and Environmental Health and Safety (EHS), a respiratory protection program was established and the college’s dental healthcare workers were soon fit tested for N95 respirators. The medical  center sourced the respirators and included the college in its reprocessing efforts with Battelle’s N95 respirator sterilization program. Face shields, another critical item in extreme demand, were also sourced by the medical center in sufficient quantities for the college to safely protect its clinical workforce members.

Next, the college assembled specialists from Ohio State and central Ohio, including infectious disease experts from OSUWMC; engineers from Ohio State’s College of Engineering; personnel from the university’s facilities and buildings office; and a consultant from an Ohio-based environmental, health, and safety company. This health and safety team was tasked with studying the college’s clinical spaces and outlining a way forward to safely expand care services.

The team completed an intensive review of the dental clinics and presented the college with a plan: retrofit the walls of the student and resident operatories to raise them from chest- to ceiling-height and hang hospital-grade curtains at each operatory entrance. These actions would create contained treatment areas that conform to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Additionally,  the team recommended the college install high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters in each operatory where aerosol-generating procedures would be completed. The filters would further keep patients and practitioners safe by removing aerosol and spray particles from the air around them.

Retrofitting so many operatories was an enormous undertaking—one that took several months. But as spaces were completed, patient visits were increased and the number and variety of procedures performed increased as well. In close consultation with university leadership, the college became the first at Ohio State to bring students back to campus following the suspension of classes and activities due to COVID-19.

Today, the college’s dental clinics are fully operational. And although as a nation we’re still navigating the challenges of the pandemic, the College of Dentistry is committed to keeping patient and provider safety at the forefront of every decision made. This approach allows our providers to continue doing what they do best— taking care of patients and providing the safe dental care Ohioans need and deserve.