The impact of COVID-19 pandemic on dental hygienists

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Study sheds light on impact of COVID-19 pandemic on dental hygienists

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A recent study has examined the infection and vaccination rates of dental hygienists and analysed their employment patterns during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Image: Vasyl Rohan/Shutterstock)

CHICAGO, US: Similarly to other dental professionals, dental hygienists have been put in the spotlight during the COVID-19 pandemic owing to the belief that they are at an increased risk of becoming infected. However, a recent study found that the cumulative infection rates among hygienists across the US, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands were, in fact, lower than those of the general US population at the time of the study. The research also highlighted the high vaccine acceptance rates among the hygienists, but cautioned that staffing challenges continue to be an issue in the profession.

The study is a collaboration between the American Dental Hygienists’ Association and the American Dental Association (ADA). In the study, the researchers examined the employment patterns, and infection and vaccine acceptance rates of 6,976 dental hygienists over 12 months, from September 2020 to August 2021.

They found that only 8.8% of the dental hygienists studied became infected with COVID-19 during the period, compared with 11.7% of the general US population. Additionally, the data showed that 75.4% of the dental hygienists had been fully vaccinated against the disease.

“We’re pleased to see that dental hygienists have demonstrated continued low incidence of infection and high vaccination, proving the profession’s ability to mitigate risk while providing care in a safe manner,” lead author Dr Cameron G. Estrich, manager of epidemiology and biostatistics at the ADA Science and Research Institute, said in a press release. “Increased vaccine availability and greater supplies of personal protective equipment should further enable dental teams to continue to follow infection prevention measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission,” she continued.

Despite the encouraging finding highlighting the efficiency of disease prevention measures and risk mitigation efforts, it was also found that staffing remains a cause for concern. For example, by August 2021, less than half of the dental hygienists that had left the profession during the pandemic had returned to work. Moreover, around 3,300 dentalhygienists (1.6% of the participants) throughout the nation indicated that they no longer intended to return to work.

Commenting on the issue, Rachel W. Morrissey, who is a senior research analyst at the ADA Health Policy Institute, said that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a voluntary reduction in the dental hygiene workforce and that this reduction may persist given that some dental hygienists are opting for permanent leave.

In light of the findings, the authors noted that future research should assess the changes in workforce levels post-pandemic and aim to better understand the factors that impact dental hygienists’ engagement in clinical practice and may influence their decision to return to work.

The study, titled “Infection prevention and control practices of dental hygienists in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic: A longitudinal study”, was published online in the February 2022 issue of the Journal of Dental Hygiene.

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