SAVOY — Michael Ruffatto thought the COVID-19 pandemic would end quickly.
When the stay-at-home order went into effect in March 2020, the Savoy dentist figured life would be back to normal by April.
“It felt like a snow day that lasted for two weeks,” he said. “All of us had an uneasy feeling because we just didn’t know, but we treated it like a bad-weather event. We didn’t know enough about it. We didn’t have enough information. Then one week became two weeks. Two weeks became a month. And we knew this was different.”
The American Dental Association and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stepped in and recommended that dental offices stop nonessential visits and surgeries during the start of the pandemic. Ruffatto shut his office down for 12 weeks and reopened June 1.
“It was remarkably quiet,” he added. “I couldn’t believe it. I came in maybe five or six times to see patients with situations that just couldn’t wait, but for the most part, we just got lucky that our office didn’t have that many emergency situations that needed immediate care.”
After reopening, Ruffatto said he and his staff were ready. The building was already equipped with an air-exhaust system in each room that was effective in removing airborne viruses.
“We had to get the higher-level N95 masks and two air purifiers for the office, but as a profession, the dentistry was already prepared for something like this,” he said. “We have been wearing masks and gloves and washing our hands thoroughly on a regular basis for 30 years. We disinfect everything between patients, and so when the pandemic hit, there wasn’t much more we could change from our pre-pandemic standards.”
In some patients, Ruffatto recognized a change in dental habits.
“They got out of their routine,” he said. “People were used to waking up, getting dressed, having breakfast, brushing their teeth and then leaving for work or school. But nobody was leaving home for the day, and they weren’t brushing routinely because their routines were out of whack. They were snacking throughout the day. There were several factors in play. There was a change in lifestyle and the inability to have routine dental care.”
Most dentists encourage six-month routine checkups. Once the pandemic hit, many patients let the routine slide.
“When we opened back up, we were pretty busy and catching up quite a bit,” he said. “There were a lot of things that happened during that 12-week period of time. When people don’t have their regular six-month checkups, it was detrimental to their dental health. So, we had some extra work on some people.”
Also, scientists found that many people experienced an increase in teeth-grinding and pain during the pandemic.
“The one thing I was surprised with was how quickly most people were willing to come back to the office,” he said. “I think when we first got going, I wasn’t sure that everyone would feel comfortable. In general, everything we do is elective. There are things we recommend, but it’s not like if you don’t get this cavity filled within the the next 24 hours, your tooth is going to fall out or something like that.
“Since most of the stuff we do is elective, it can be put off. Cleanings especially. But for the most part, people were willing to come back in. They trusted us and knew what we were doing and trusted us with their health and safety and well-being, and so I was pleasantly surprised at our patients’ willingness to get back to normal.”
Ruffatto says his patients are still trying to get back into their regular routines.
“We are still seeing people that haven’t been in since prior to when the pandemic started,” he said. “And for some, that means they haven’t seen a dentist since late 2019 or early 2020. But by this point, I believe everybody is comfortable with the steps we have taken to ensure everyone’s safety. I know for us, all of those extra precautions are just routine, and a regular way of doing our business now.”