Even though it was closed for only a few months, the Kids’ Community Dental Clinic is facing an “onslaught” of children needing care, according to its executive director, Dale Gorman.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused the Burbank nonprofit, which serves low-income children through age 18, to close in March. Two staff members fielded emergency calls from across Southern California and engaged dentists to provide remote care, with the possibility of referrals for in-person treatment, for patients who had nowhere else to go.
But by the time the clinic reopened in June, problems such as minor cavities that could not be addressed in March instead necessitated root canals and crowns.
“That’s how fast it travels,” Gorman said in a phone interview. Tooth decay “spreads pretty quickly.”
The dental clinic in its current iteration opened around 2001 — though it was originally founded by nuns at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in the 1960s — and normally serves more than 2,000 children a year for free or at low cost. Last year, it also held dental screenings for about 13,000 children at schools.
But that number may drop. Getting kids screened is much more difficult, as schools across Los Angeles County have closed their doors to slow the spread of the coronavirus and some patients who had appointments at the clinic hesitate to come in.
The World Health Organization even urged on Aug. 3 that “routine nonessential oral health care — which usually includes oral health check-ups, dental cleanings and preventive care — be delayed until there has been sufficient reduction in COVID-19 transmission rates from community transmission to cluster cases or according to official recommendations at the national, sub-national or local level.”
The American Dental Association disagreed with the recommendation, saying that the use of personal protective equipment should be enough to safeguard dentists and their patients. The policy follows that of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have not advised that people delay receiving dental care.
The Kids’ Community Dental Clinic is well-stocked with N95 masks, gowns, face shields and more, Gorman said. Dental assistant Amber Gomez also explained that she often checks in with patients to make sure they’re comfortable coming to the clinic, explaining that the dentists are using additional oral vacuums for added protection from aerosols.
CLINIC GEARED TO LOW-INCOME FAMILIES
A 2005 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that children from low-income families are more likely to have “unmet dental needs” than children from higher-income families, pointing to a lack of health insurance as a potential reason for low-income children not visiting a dentist.
The clinic, which is based in Burbank but accepts patients from outside the city, provides services to children of low-income families who are uninsured or only have Medi-Cal, Gorman explained. Families with insurance don’t have to pay the clinic directly, while those without insurance pay $25 per visit.
Many families that have Medi-Cal sometimes find that there aren’t any dental providers they can turn to, she said, meaning the clinic has the opportunity to fill the service gap.
The clinic offers other services besides in-house care and school screenings, including allowing students interested in a career in dentistry to volunteer at the nonprofit. Gorman estimated that around 50 or 60 students who have worked with the clinic have gone on to attend dental school.
“Volunteering is so important during this time especially, but I think it’s a rewarding opportunity for many people,” she said.
FROM VOLUNTEER TO WORKER
Gomez is one such volunteer turned worker. After graduating from John Burroughs High School in 2013, the Burbank resident knew she was interested in the field. But it wasn’t until she started volunteering at the clinic that she knew the work was something she wanted to do.
She was there for about a year, even taking an X-ray class there. When she started taking dental hygiene classes at USC, she was well-prepared for the radiology course.
“I got to meet a lot of different dentists to see how they work with the kids,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s just been a great experience. I’m very thankful that I got to meet them.”
Gomez later returned to the clinic as a dental assistant, and is planning to apply to dental school and become a dentist. She likes building relationships with patients, she explained, and interacting with the children is her favorite part of her current job.
“A couple of weeks ago I was talking to [a girl] while the dentist was working with another patient,” she said. “I had sat her down, I was asking her about her school … and at the end of her [visit] she came to me and she said, ‘I just want to thank you for talking to me because it really made me feel more comfortable.’
“I didn’t even know I was doing anything — I was just talking to her,” she said with a laugh.