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SF Dentists Brave Highest Risk Of COVID-19 Contamination To Treat Emergency Patients

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) - When California banned all non-urgent medical procedures, a lot of dentist offices closed down. Still, a few stayed open to handle emergencies and it turns out they're some of the highest risk healthcare workers in the country.

Yousef Chemisa of Half Moon Bay was eating a cracker on Sunday when one of his molars split in half.

"As I bit down it was like, whoa, that hurts and I felt it loose on the front," he said.

On Tuesday Chemisa went to 7 X 7 Oral Surgery Specialists in San Francisco to have it removed.

They are one of the few dental practices still open in the entire area.

"If we're not there to provide any type or treatment or assessment, then really the only option for these patients is to go to an emergency room," said oral surgeon Dr. Eric Scharf. "And that's really the last place they want to be."

Having already closed two other facilities, Dr. Scharf says the office in San Francisco's West Portal neighborhood is doing four or five emergency procedures a day, as other dentists refer patients to them for treatment. There's a reason those other offices are closed.

"With our line of work, because our profession is working in the mouth, we are definitely one of those higher-risk type professions for COVID-19," he said.

In fact, a New York Times study found dental practitioners to be among the highest risk health care workers. Many procedures, such as drilling or ultrasonic scaling, send germs in the mouth into the air. That's why, during the COVID-19 crisis, Dr. Scharf has switched to N-95 masks and everyone, including front desk workers, are in full protective clothing. Julie Charernsuk has a sister with an auto-immune disorder and for the first time ever, she's nervous about coming to work.

"So, it's kind of like, am I doing right by her? Is it too risky coming here?" she said. "But at the end of the day my purpose pretty much is just helping people."

For now, the office is just trying to keep people out of already-crowded ER's but there is talk about recruiting dentists to help at hospitals if they start being overwhelmed. Dr. Scharf says if that happens, he has no doubt they will answer the call.

"The beautiful thing out of this is that people are stepping up and filling those roles," said Scharf, "even though that may not have been their normal role prior to the COVID-19 experience."

Like all healthcare workers, dentists are also having trouble getting the N 95 masks they need. Dr. Scharf hopes his office will not be overlooked when the public donates protective equipment to emergency workers.

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