Coronavirus: Dentists issue dire industry warning

The Dental Association (NZDA) has issued a dire warning to the Epidemic Response Committee as 20,000 New Zealanders miss out on dental care each day of the lockdown.

NZDA President Dr Katie Ayers was one of many health professionals who spoke to the committee during their fifth meeting on Wednesday.

Dr Ayers said the dentist industry was in a "dire state" due to a lack of government planning, support and nearly no available PPE. 

"The dental profession has been telling Government and the public for weeks about continued access issues around the mandatory requirements and quantities of PPE," she said. 

"However, the extreme uncertainty for us is a lack of ready guidelines setting out what dental treatment should look like at each Alert level. This means that planning is unable to begin. 

"There is currently no indication when dental practices will be able to reopen and a workforce of over 10,000 is essentially sitting without work."

She says one out of eight practices have already begun to lay off staff and up to 45 percent are being forced to consider the drastic measures.

The NZDA says leaving them without work will only contribute to the "looming public health crisis". 

"Since [the end of March] most dentists have remained available via telephone or video conferencing offering prescriptions for pain relief and antibiotics in an attempt to keep pain and infection under control," Dr Ayers said. 

"While medication can be used to monitor acute problems in the short term, the underlying cause needs to be treated as soon as possible. 

"The number of patients experiencing these problems, and also the severity of these problems, will increase as long as dental care is inaccessible." 

The NZDA has estimated 400,000 Kiwis have had to cancel dental appointments since the lockdown began and Dr Ayers confirmed at least one person is in intensive care due to a life-threatening infection.

The industry has been battling to get better access to PPE since the end of March when dentists reported the Government's supplies weren't getting to them.

"We are being told by members that there is simply not enough PPE available to substantially offer emergency dental services within the guidelines enforced by the Dental Council," Dr Ayers said at the time.

"Dentists are incredibly upset that they are unable to help patients, many of whom are in dire need, due to the lack of PPE."

They are hoping their meeting with the committee on Wednesday will help to change that.

On Wednesday the committee is also hearing from the New Zealand Medical Association, New Zealand Aged Care Association, Pharmacy Guild of New Zealand, the New Zealand Disability Network, New Zealand Dental Association, and epidemiologist Sir David Skegg. 

The committee is made up of 11 MPs who meet via teleconference to hold the Government to account on it's response to COVID-19 and has talked to media companies, transport, food and farmers to address problems the industries are facing.

Watch the rest of Wednesday's meeting here.