Weathering the COVID storm in dentistry

17 December 2020

As the world struggled to control the spread of COVID-19, the first official lockdown began in March 2020, and the School of Dentistry had to temporarily close its doors to in-person learning, patient care and research.

The dental profession was particularly hard hit by the global pandemic. With the majority of dental procedures and treatments carrying a high risk of infection for the practitioner and patient, dentistry faced a unique set of challenges compared to other professions.

Enhancing safety protocols and procedures for a safe return

For the School of Dentistry to return to regular clinic operations and in-person learning, new policies and protocols had to be implemented. Once Alberta went into lockdown, a skeleton crew operated its dental clinic and provided only emergency care to patients while a plan for safe return was cemented, including the creation of stringent COVID-19 infection prevention and control standards (IPC) for staff, faculty, students and patients to follow. This team put in motion what the new way of working and learning would look like during the pandemic.

As restrictions lifted for the dental profession, more staff and faculty were involved in providing care to patients with urgent and emergent dental needs.

"Although the pandemic has thrown many challenges our way, it has given us the opportunity to rethink our processes and drive continuous improvement even during unprecedented times," says Doris Lunardon, clinical associate professor and associate chair of clinical operations.  "Many thanks to everyone for contributing to the school's success in 2020 - a true testament to resilience and team work!”

The University of Alberta’s exception process to return to campus was extensive. But being in a healthcare learning environment, it was vital for students and staff to return to in-person learning and patient care activities, and they did successfully with approval in July for intersession.

Enhancing IPC, including mapping and measuring facilities to ensure physical distancing and personal protective equipment (PPE) had to be proven before returning. And with dentistry already having stringent IPC and PPE policies in place, the school was well-positioned to enhance these existing policies.

After implementing adequate group sizes for learning, screening practices for incoming staff, faculty, students and patients, and protocols for individuals showing symptoms, the school was given the go ahead from administration and students were welcomed back to campus.

“Not being able to provide proper oral health management for my patients during the COVID closure was a horrible, helpless feeling. The pandemic has made me realize just how much I am obsessed with dentistry and keeping my patients’ chompers chomping,” says Nicole Robins (DDS '21). "COVID-19 has adapted the way we learn as dental students, but it has not made it more difficult. Turning imperfect situations into valuable lessons is how you are defined as a professional."

Research activities on campus were also impacted with some projects coming to a screeching halt and others identified as essential.  This was particularly hard on our research faculty and grad students because having to prioritize projects when all research is important was a challenge.  Similar to that of a dental / dental hygiene program, most foundational science research cannot be facilitated remotely. Having access to labs and specialized equipment is critical to doing research. Despite these challenges, our research staff and faculty were tenacious and pursued their projects including submitting grants and award nominations, and supporting their grad students in every way that they could.

With unwavering spirits and hope like this, the school continued to weather the COVID storm. And it did so by not forgetting to stop and celebrate the accomplishments that came with treading on this unprecedented path.

The School continues to celebrate its successes

Faculty, staff and students, along with its community of supporters, had much to celebrate. Support of all sorts was evident from donors graciously giving money to part-time faculty coming back in to teach, all of which was critical for the school to open its doors. Without the generosity from alumni, donors, part-time faculty to our organizational partners and associations stepping up to the plate, our students would not have received their learning experiences, and our patients would not have received adequate and timely oral health care.

During the pandemic, the School of Dentistry successfully wrapped up its Dentistry for Life fundraising campaign, raising over $8 million for underserved populations, student bursaries and research. A major beneficiary of the project was the Boyle McCauley Health Centre Dental Clinic. In its newly expanded location, the new clinic can now treat up to 3,000 patients a year. The school was proud to announce its first cohort of students to graduate from the dental hygiene degree program. Though COVID-19 prevented the school from organizing traditional graduation celebrations, students were none-the-less recognized for their academic achievements through online ceremonies. And their academic achievements resulted in scoring above the national average on their board exams.

“To be able to remain focused in such challenging times has highlighted the resilience of our graduates,” says Dr. Sharon Compton, director of the Dental Hygiene Degree Program at the U of A. “It also has highlighted the caliber of our program and faculty who teach.”

Implementing many new firsts

Amidst the turmoil of the ongoing global health crisis, the school implemented its new DDS curriculum and saw the Class of 2023 complete the first year and enroll and begin the second year of the new doctor of dentistry program.

Furthermore, another milestone was reached when the first class of the Periodontology Graduate Program students celebrated their program completion and convocated in November. The school had 12 students graduate with their MSc or PhD during a year filled with lockdowns. And all of the school's clinical graduate students successfully passed their dental board exams! Another major announcement was the appointment and recruitment of two Alberta Dental Association & College endowed chairs (Oral Health Research and Dentistry Research Endowed Chairs).

"This year will go down in history, that is for certain. Our entire world has changed as a result of recent events. I am amazed that we have been able to (safely) continue running our programs, and this can be attributed to the many hours of work put in by our faculty and staff," says dentistry chair Paul Major.

As dentistry continues to move forward with the rest of the world- whether it's under new restrictions or adapting our lifestyles to stay safe from COVID-19, the School of Dentistry would not have achieved this level of success without faculty, staff, students, donors and its alumni.

We survived 2020! And we are ready for whatever 2021 may bring.