Local dentists are worried that a recent message from the World Health Organization is confusing patients.
On Aug. 3, the WHO recommended delaying nonessential dental care in areas where COVID-19 is actively spreading.
"We're concerned about it," said Dr. Eli Eliav, "because if patients will not go to routine checkups and they will only come for emergency treatments, their condition can get worse, and it can affect not only their oral health, but their overall health."
Eliav, director of the Eastman Institute for Oral Health, said the WHO guidance is good for certain parts of the world, but it doesn't apply to Rochester or New York state, which have COVID-19 transmission rates of less than 1 percent.
"And there is not even one case reported of patients or a provider that got the virus during treatment," he added.
For the first three months of the pandemic, dental care was restricted to emergency treatment in New York state.
On June 1, Gov. Andrew Cuomo allowed dental practices to reopen to all patients, even for routine care.
Eliav said dentists learned a lot in those three months about protecting both patients and practitioners from coronavirus. Guidance from the American Dental Association calls for the highest level of personal protective equipment available, including masks, face shields, and goggles.
From March through July, patient visits to Eastman's six dental practices and three mobile clinics in Rochester were down 71% compared to the same period last year.
Not all patients may be avoiding the dentist out of fear of COVID-19, Eliav said. Some may be dealing with financial or transportation problems.
"Our job is to make them feel comfortable and safe," he said. The Eastman clinics have a number of safety practices in place, including patient screening, staggered appointments, infection control practices, and temporary waiting rooms.