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Dental representatives say the change will provide convenience for patients

COURTESY PHOTO: KAISER PERMANENTE/PERMANENTE DENTAL ASSOCIATES - Due to 2019 legislation, Oregon dentists now can administer any vaccines once they undergo training.

With COVID-19 spreading uncontrollably, Americans are placing more of their hopes on the development of a vaccine that could protect people from severe illness or worse and make a return to relative normalcy a less risky proposition.

Assuming a vaccine is readily available at some point, the local health clinic won't be the only option for receiving it.

The Oregon Legislature passed a bill in 2019 to allow dentists to administer vaccines. Currently, Minnesota and Illinois allow dentists to administer flu shots, but Oregon became the first state to permit them to administer any vaccine.

Oregon Health & Science University trained about 200 students and faculty members last fall, but opened training to dentists across the state recently. According to a news release, 21 Kaiser Permanente dentists recently became the first dentists outside of OHSU to complete the university's vaccination training program, which certifies Oregon dentists to administer vaccines.

"Oregon dentists continue leading the way to better health outcomes across the state," said Barry Taylor of the Oregon Dental Association, which is based in Wilsonville. "By empowering dentists to administer vaccines to patients, we are helping to reduce the incidence of flu and slow the spread of human papillomavirus, ultimately reducing rates of oral and throat cancers."

Dr. Denise Gates, who has a dental practice in Wilsonville, said dental offices providing vaccines could improve convenience for clients who already have a scheduled cleaning or see their dentist regularly.

"When you say 'Hey you can do that (receive a vaccine) with your routine cleaning you've already scheduled, that's convenient for them," Gates said.

Though the dentist program is in its infancy, according to a study by Avalere Health and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, pharmacists being allowed to administer vaccines increased the rate of flu vaccinations by a few percentage points.

"These findings suggest that pharmacies and other nontraditional settings may offer accessible venues for patients when implementing other public health initiatives," the study reads.

Along with flu and (eventually) COVID-19 vaccinations, Gates said that the HPV vaccine could be useful to administer at a dental office. HPV can cause oral cancer.

"It's been around for a while, but it's one I think people aren't as familiar with, and in a dental setting it would definitely be applicable," she said.

Regarding the fear of contracting COVID-19 during an appointment, the ODA pointed to a recent study by the Journal of the American Dental Association showing that 20 of 2,195 dentists surveyed had contracted COVID-19 since reopening this spring.

"Dental is one of the safest places to be or go right now. We have a lot of protocols we've had in place for years and only upped them since the start of COVID," Gates said.

There might be some challenges for dentists to administer vaccines, however. For one, there is a limited number of classes at OHSU due to the COVID-19 pandemic and some might be wary of participating in the in-person portion. Also, dental offices already billing medical insurance and offices with access to electronic health records may be able to implement this service more quickly.

"I work at a public health center (where dental and medical records are merged) on Fridays. We have access to health history right off the bat. That's great when you (administer) a vaccination," Gates said, adding that there also could be a need for staff increases to administer the vaccines depending on the office.

For her part, Gates said she plans to undergo training so she can administer vaccines but isn't sure exactly when. She wants to establish a plan before she does so.

"It's definitely doable. It's just a matter of getting a system in place. Sometimes that takes a little bit of time," she said.

Overall, Gates is a proponent of collaboration between medical and dental providers. After all, oral health is connected to overall health, she said.

"We (dentists) have the ability to provide care that does affect the whole body," Gates said. "Being able to collaborate with colleagues and aid in this care is a positive."

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