Once again, it’s that time of the year, and at the Indian Health Service we are excited to recognize National Dental Hygiene Month in October. The American Dental Hygienists’ Association theme this year is “Celebrating Resilience.” I would like to supplement that by celebrating all dental hygienists across Indian Country.
There are more than 450 registered dental hygienists within IHS direct service, tribal, and urban dental facilities across the 12 IHS Areas, providing dental services and patient education to approximately 2.6 million American Indians Alaska Natives who belong to 574 federally recognized tribes. We serve as clinicians, educators, patient and community advocates, oral health and disease prevention managers, program managers, and administrators. Many of us are leaders within our health care facilities and communities to emphasize how everything from tooth decay to gum disease affects overall health.
It has been a truly unforeseen mission over the last 20 months with the challenges brought by COVID-19. The early phases of COVID-19 initiated a shutdown of dental clinics. Changes continued as we migrated into the next phase of COVID-19, returning to the dental clinics prior to the widespread availability of vaccines. IHS dental hygienists are resilient, adaptable and capable, and have served in additional roles to include testing for COVID-19, assisting with vaccination clinics, incident command functions, and critical care services. The current phase of COVID-19, after the introduction of vaccines, has heightened standards of patient care and our adherence to strict infection control guidelines. The use of powered air purifying respirators, N95 masks, air scrubbers, and spacing of dental units are a few implementations in place to allow for less aerosol transmission during dental treatment.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration declared the dental hygienist profession as high risk for getting COVID-19. However, national data has shown that only 3.1% of dental hygienists have had COVID-19. Why? Although dental hygienists serve in close physical proximity to others and potential exposure to viruses, we are naturally detail-oriented. We have a high degree of training in infection control. Dental hygiene education programs also teach us the importance of properly wearing PPE and handwashing. Our lower rates are due to these strict infection control methods that we have always applied to our job.
Dental hygienists throughout Indian Country are highly appreciated for their efforts and contributions beyond regular duties within the dental clinics, other areas within health clinics and hospitals, and within their communities. Dental hygienists have handled challenges and unknown certainties, and their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Whether they are recognized with an award or a pat on the back, they should stand proudly and smile, because they are making a difference in lives.