Massachusetts dentists got the green light Thursday to start getting the COVID-19 vaccine as Gov. Charlie Baker announced all groups in Phase 1 of the state’s vaccination plan may get inoculated, but the professional organization representing the dental industry says the access came too slowly.
Dentists, dental hygienists, assistants and others within the industry were placed in the last category of Phase 1, as non-COVID-facing health care workers, despite being one of the only health care workers who have to work with unmasked patients, said Dr. MaryJane Hanlon, president of the Massachusetts Dental Society.
“We’re working on somebody’s mouth. They don’t have a mask on,” she said. “We are not protected the same way that a physician or a nurse would be protected … patients are wearing masks all the time in a hospital.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended on Dec. 28 that dental workers get vaccinated in the first phase just like other health care workers, such as physicians, technicians, nursing assistants and emergency medical service personnel.
The Massachusetts vaccination plan places all healthcare workers in Phase 1, but the plan prioritized “COVID-facing workers” or doctors and nurses that treated COVID-19 patients, followed by first responders, people in congregate settings and then other health care workers.
Dentists were put at the end of Phase 1 without having a seat at the table, Hanlon said. The advisory board behind the vaccination plan did not include a dental industry leader. She said the result was a prioritization list that did not take into account the level of exposure people in dentistry might have compared to other health care workers.
Hanlon expected dentists would have to wait until February to be offered the vaccine. She welcomed the news that all health care workers could get vaccinated as soon as Thursday.
Delta Dental of Massachusetts, which asked the state Department of Public Health to immediately offer the vaccine to dentists, praised the Baker administration’s announcement.
“We want to thank Governor Baker for this is welcome news for the oral health community and the work to combat the coronavirus here in Massachusetts,” DDMA wrote. “Dentists are an essential part of our health care community and play a pivotal role in keeping people healthy throughout this crisis and beyond.”
Before Thursday’s announcement, Hanlon was among a handful of dentists who were cleared to get vaccinated early. The associate dean for clinical affairs at Tufts School of Dental Medicine, she could have gotten a shot through the university.
But she declined. Hanlon, who oversees dentists and doesn’t see patients, said she wanted to wait until all dentists have the ability to get vaccinated.
“The bottom line is, I’m not taking advantage of what my position is,” said Hanlon, noting that private practitioners don’t have the same access as dental workers affiliated with large hospital systems.
Some dentists were able to work with hospitals in their community to get vaccinated in Berkshire County, Hanlon said, but those options haven’t been available across the state. Having heard Gillette Stadium is starting to take appointments for dentists, Hanlon encouraged South Shore dentists to go to Foxborough to get their shots.
In the meantime, Hanlon said she coordinated with dentists to get their entire team inoculated when the vaccines become available, from the dentist to the front desk worker to the lab technician who creates dentures and crowns.
Dentists are also preparing to help administer the COVID-19 vaccines, Hanlon said. Health care workers have to undergo training and then can volunteer to vaccinate people.
While dentists now have access to the vaccine in Massachusetts, Hanlon said she hopes dentistry leaders can play a larger role in state-level discussions about access to COVID-19 resources.
“We deserve to be at the table with all the other doctors and weigh in on what the impact is so we can educate them on what the impact is to our profession,” Hanlon said. “Not being asked didn’t allow us to even give an opinion. They don’t have to follow. They can still do their own thing, but work with all the knowledge you have access to.”