Dr. Killian MacCarthy stands in his office in South Portland on Monday. MacCarthy, an oral surgeon, said he has seen more deep infections that come from a lack of routine dental care during the pandemic. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maine dentists are criticizing the Mills administration for leaving dentistry in a state of uncertainty and jeopardizing patients’ long-term oral health by failing to set reopening guidelines that allow for non-emergency dental treatment.

Only emergency dental care is now permitted in Maine, and the state has not set a date set to reopen for other care. Dentists had anticipated being part of the limited reopening that Gov. Janet Mills established on May 1, and were disappointed that they were not included in her plan, which allowed for hair salons, barber shops, other businesses and other elective healthcare services to begin.

Maine is the only New England state to indefinitely postpone routine care, according to an American Dental Association list of plans and state reopening plans. Most states already have reopened routine dentistry, such as cleanings and fillings, or plan to open within the next two weeks.

“This is just really irresponsible at this point,” said Dr. Brad Rand, president of the Maine Dental Association. “We are being forced to neglect problems that are becoming more complex every day. Patients are facing irreversible and lifetime changes to their oral health because of this forced neglect.”

Even Massachusetts, one of the hot spots for COVID-19, is planning to resume preventive and routine care by May 18. New Hampshire began teeth cleanings on Monday, while Connecticut and Vermont already have restarted routine dental care, and more restricted routine dental care is permitted in Rhode Island.

Jeanne Lambrew, commissioner of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, said she was waiting for updated U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on resuming routine dental care. The U.S. CDC’s guidance, which was released in March as the pandemic swept the country, recommends emergency care only. That guidance has not been updated as many states embark on reopening their economies.

Lambrew, in a briefing with the Maine media on Friday, said more clarity may come from the federal government on Tuesday, when CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield is scheduled to testify before the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on a broad-ranging discussion about reopening.

Jackie Farwell, Maine DHHS spokeswoman, said Lambrew hopes dentistry will be part of Tuesday’s committee hearing.

“If not, although we generally prefer to rely on federal and professional association guidance, we will engage again with dentists, dental hygienists, and public health experts to explore the possibility of issuing our own guidance,” Farwell said in a written statement Monday.

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who serves on the health committee, said she will be working with federal and state officials to help restart routine dental care in Maine.

“I have heard from dentists all over the state that the fact that they cannot practice in Maine, despite following strict infection control protocols, is a growing health problem,” Collins said in a written statement. “Forty-seven other states either have reopened dental practices or have set a date for them to reopen. Dentists tell me that cavities that could have been filled are now going to require root canals. Teeth that could have been treated with root canals are now going to require extractions. People with oral cancers cannot get cleanings required before their treatment. Dental health is important. I will continue to work closely with the state and the national CDC to provide Maine with the assistance that it needs in order to make a decision.”

Dr. Killian MacCarthy, a South Portland oral surgeon, said he’s now routinely performing surgeries with deep infections into the jaw that he only used to see one or two times per year.

“Recently, I did four of these surgeries on the neck in a week,” MacCarthy said. “If (dentistry) were closed for only two weeks, it’s not much of a problem,  but it’s been two months now and things are about to blow up.”

Dr. Charles Thomas, a dentist who practices in York and Biddeford, said people with cracked teeth waiting for a crown are risking worse oral health problems by not being allowed to get routine dentistry.

“If you ask someone to chew on one side of their mouth for two months straight, they are one bad bite away from more problems,” Thomas said.

Dr. Whitney Wignall, a pediatric dentist in Portland, sent a letter to Mills on Monday urging the reopening of preventive dentistry.

“I have had to treat children who were in pain, who had dental infections, and many of whom had oral or facial swellings. Some of these children visited the emergency room,” Wignall wrote. “All of this was preventable.”

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