Let the dentists and others return to work as we learn more about coronavirus

Last year at this time, a myriad array of left-wing groups had taken to the Maine State House. Their cause was encapsulated in a catchy slogan.

“Dental care is health care.”

Therefore, the ongoing “shutdowns” of dentistry during the coronavirus pandemic means the government is denying people health care. Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Of course, that doesn’t exactly cover it. There is a bit more nuance to the situation.

When the pandemic hit Maine, we responded by jettisoning vast portions of medical treatments. “Elective” surgeries, such as joint repairs, were halted. Emergency room visits dropped off precipitously. And routine dental care was verboten.

Greek dentist Dimitra Karaiskou, left, wearing a full protective suit against the coronavirus, along with her assistants Maria Vrettou, center, and Sofia Vasilaki, right, also wearing protective equipment, pose for a photo during the first day of the re-opening of their dental clinic on May 4, following a lockdown to stop the spread of the coronavirus. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

All completely understandable. COVID-19 is a respiratory disease. The apparent dearth of ventilators led medical professionals to believe they were underprepared for a sudden onslaught of sick people. So hard decisions were made in the name of “flattening the curve.”

We drove our economy into the equivalent of a medically-induced coma. Restricting economic activity was the best way to keep people apart. Health care struggled along with everyone else; one of Maine’s largest physician practices was forced to furlough a third of its staff. Dental providers’ revenue streams effectively stopped.

At first, this all made sense. There was a lot we did not know about the new virus and prudence counseled caution.

But we know a lot more now. Ventilators — once championed as the “must-have” item to fight the virus — may actually not be the appropriate intervention in many critical cases. Nearly half the population may be asymptomatic should they contract the virus.

In fact, the University of Miami estimates that the actual number of cases may be 16.5 times higher than the number reported. Data from Los Angeles County suggests it could be even higher. That is good news because it means the virus’ mortality rate may be much lower than previously thought.

This has led numerous government officials to start letting people return to the world, including here in Maine. Gov. Janet Mills’ first plan was a one-size-fits-all approach with arbitrary, calendar-driven deadlines. The “Phase I” reopening let Mainers go back to barbershops and hair salons. It also let “health care providers” open up to provide routine care.

But it did not let dentists return to more routine work. So, is dental care really health care?

To her credit, Mills backtracked on her first “reopening” plan. She has changed course in favor of a more geographic strategy. It is time to follow suit with oral health care.

Seriously. In what world is it okay to get your hair colored and cut, but not acceptable to have your teeth cleaned and checked for cavities?

State officials have indicated their reticence is grounded in guidance from the federal government. That seems an overly cautious approach; only six other states have followed that path.

Nevertheless, since the Mills administration has sought federal guidance, Maine’s senior senator — Susan Collins — stepped forward to help provide it. She questioned the U.S. CDC director on the issue, and he assured her they were going to update their guidelines.

With luck, next week will see Mainers throughout the state catch up on routine dental care. Like most maintenance, solving small problems early prevents large problems from arising down the road.

That same lesson should inform the reopening of the remainder of the economy. Every day brings a new headline of some business that will not be able to reopen its doors. Unless we want to live in a state populated solely by national franchises and multinational conglomerates, it is time to find ways to get Maine back to work.


Michael Cianchette

About Michael Cianchette

Michael Cianchette was the chief counsel to Gov. Paul LePage from 2012-2013 and deputy counsel from 2011-2012. A Navy reservist, he was deployed to Afghanistan from 2013-2014 as a trainer and adviser to the Afghan National Police. He is an alumnus of the Leadership Maine program and holds a BA in economics and political science from Boston College along with a JD and an MBA from Suffolk University. He works as in-house counsel and financial manager for a number of affiliated companies in southern Maine.