Bob Duff expected and assumed his dentist was vaccinated for COVID-19 when he settled into the dental chair during an appointment late last month. Still, he decided to inquire just in case.
He and his doctor were exchanging pleasantries at the start of the visit when Duff asked, “Oh, just by the way, you're vaccinated, right?”
“I just felt like it was an important question to ask because it was really the first doctor, medical professional I've seen recently,” Duff, of Norwalk, Connecticut, and the majority leader of the Connecticut Senate, told TODAY.
“And he looked at me and he said, ‘No, I'm not vaccinated’… I was just really just floored.”
Duff, who tweeted about the incident, isn’t naming the dentist but said it was important to use his platform as a state legislator to share the story with other people and make them aware of the possibility a dentist may not be vaccinated for COVID-19.
After a couple of minutes discussing the matter with the doctor, Duff told him he was uncomfortable and left before being treated, he said. He’s not planning to go back to that dental office.
“The moral of the story is: Don’t assume, don't be afraid to ask and most importantly, don't be afraid to leave,” Duff said.
Dentists work inches away from a patient’s face, so they may be of particular concern as people seek medical care during the resurgence of COVID-19 caused by the delta variant.
Most dentists have received the shot, according to surveys done by the American Dental Association Health Policy Institute. In June, almost 90% of dentists reported being fully vaccinated for COVID-19, while 93.4% of dentists reported receiving at least one dose.
The American Dental Association “strongly encourages” all members to get vaccinated and to encourage their team members to do the same, the organization said in a statement. But it’s not calling for mandated vaccination.
“Nationally, the ADA is following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination guidelines,” the statement noted.
“While the ADA is not calling for a nationwide vaccination mandate, we are urging state and local dental societies to consider all the public health strategies available to them, based on the exposure risks in their area. It’s important to note that ADA isn’t a regulatory agency.”
But that stance is being criticized as not going far enough by some dental professionals. Dr. Cecile Feldman, dean of the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine in Newark, New Jersey, called the ADA’s policy “tepid” and wrote she was disappointed by it in an opinion piece for NJ.com.
“I think it should have been a very strong statement saying all dental health care workers should be vaccinated, period,” Feldman told TODAY.
“In dentistry in general, we are very good at protective measures. We use PPE all the time and there's very little evidence of transmission in the dental office because of all the precautions that we take. But we do have an obligation to take all of the precautions that we possibly can and vaccination is one of them… I feel very, very strongly that we should be vaccinated.”
That includes not just the dentist, but the dental assistant, hygienist, front desk personnel — and even the billing staff because they do interact with patients occasionally, she said.
Feldman was also concerned that most dentists were not covered by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s recent executive order mandating that workers in certain state and private health care facilities be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or be subject to regular COVID-19 testing.
The order does apply to dentists if they work in a “covered setting,” said Alyana Alfaro, the governor’s press secretary. That includes hospitals, long-term care facilities and urgent care clinics.
But most dentists work in private practice and aren’t covered by the order, Feldman pointed out. The mandate should have required all health care personnel, no matter what kind of environment they work in, to be vaccinated, she said.
On a national scale, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced last month the COVID-19 vaccine would be mandatory for all health care personnel — including dentists — who work in Veterans Health Administration facilities, visit those facilities or provide direct care to patients the VA serves.
When it comes to states, the ADA listed Maine as mandating COVID-19 vaccination for dentists and workers employed by dental practices.
In California, health care workers must show proof of vaccination or submit to regular testing, with dental offices and dental office staff included in the order, according to the California Dental Association.
New York State has mandated health care workers in all health care facilities to be vaccinated for COVID-19, but the mandate doesn’t apply to private practice dentists, the New York State Dental Association noted.
In July, more than 50 health organizations called for health care employers to require their workers to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in a joint statement.
Duff, the Connecticut state legislator who left his dental appointment after finding out his dentist wasn’t vaccinated, is recommending medical offices disclose — whether on their websites or via signs on their doors — if their office staff, as a group, is fully vaccinated.
If in doubt, patients should just ask their dentist or dental hygienist about their vaccination status directly: It’s not a HIPAA violation to inquire, though people are not obligated to answer, health law experts said.
Feldman hoped bringing attention to the issue would motivate unvaccinated dentists and other health care workers to get the shot.
“If you don't believe in vaccination, you do not belong in the health profession,” she said. “We pledged not to do any harm and by not being vaccinated, you've got the potential to harm others.”