Dental hygiene program director Melinda Gill helps Roane State student Natasha McNeil into the mandatory garb she wears while working with patients. Still to be put on: a hair covering and a face shield.
August 27, 2020
By Bob Fowler
Roane State staff writer
In the era of COVID-19, upgrades and extensive precautions have been put in place in Roane State’s dental hygiene program, located in the Coffey-McNally Building on the community college’s Oak Ridge Branch Campus.
During the coronavirus pandemic, dental hygienists find themselves in a work environment that places them at risk of exposure to the virus as they work up close with patients as they exhale tiny droplets potentially containing the virus.
But both Melinda Gill, director of the highly regarded program, and student Natasha McNeil agree: They consider the community college’s dental hygiene clinic, office and classroom some of the safest places around.
Gill said she began preparing for the changes prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control in late March as the coronavirus spread globally. “We developed additional and new protocols,” she said. “I’ve been constantly working on this since spring break.”
Now, with the upgrades and renovations nearing completion, “I feel like we’re very safe,” Natasha said. She modeled the personal protective equipment now mandatory for students, faculty and staff. Those outfits include Level 3 face masks, face shields, gloves, a disposable gown covering scrubs, hair coverings, and special footwear that’s not taken home.
Temperatures of dental hygiene students, faculty and dental hygiene patients are taken daily with touchless scanners, and bottles of hand sanitizer are readily available throughout the dental hygiene department’s offices, reception area, classroom and operatories. There’s also a hand-washing policy that’s strictly enforced.
It’s in the dental clinic operatories – the areas where dentists and hygienists work with patients – that upgrades and changes are most apparent.
Walls separating those areas have been extended from floor to ceiling, air purifiers are in use, and special high-volume evacuator systems called Purevacs are used to reduce aerosols during procedures in each operatory. Each operatory also has its own air vent.
Final renovations will include a door between the reception area/office and the dental clinic and virus-killing ultraviolet lights placed into the air conditioning air handler. Tempered glass dividers between students in the dental lab have also been placed.
Even the way the program serves the public during fall and spring semesters, with low-cost dental cleaning procedures that serve as hands-on training for students, has been changed.
Patients will wait in their vehicles until they are called in by phone or email, have their temperatures taken by touchless scanners before they enter the building, and answer COVID-related questions before they enter the dental hygiene department.
Gill said the changes in her program are likely to become the new normal for dental clinics and dental hygiene curriculums like Roane State’s. “It’s something we have to adopt and get used to for the safety of all involved,” she said.
Even with the pandemic, Gill said she’s seen an increase in inquiries from potential students about the Roane State dental hygiene program, which she said is well regarded in the region.
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