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Dental clinic sees dip in volunteers

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/29/2020 9:05:46 PM
Modified: 6/29/2020 9:09:11 PM

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — For the first time in its more than 20-year history, Red Logan Dental Clinic is poised to begin recruiting a full-time supervising dentist to help fill a gap left by retirees who once volunteered their time but are now reluctant to return.

The free clinic in downtown White River Junction has been part of Good Neighbor Health Clinics since 1996.

The program brought 13 dental students from Tufts University and the University of New England to work nearly 2,000 supervised hours in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019.

That year, the clinic provided $780,000 in dental services including exams, cleanings, fillings, extractions and dentures to 753 adults in the community who didn’t have dental insurance or who were underinsured.

More than a dozen volunteer dentists supervised the students.

But because many of those supervising dentists are older retirees who may be at a greater risk of developing serious symptoms should they contract COVID-19, some are hesitant to return as the pandemic persists, said Dr. Bob Alvarenga, Red Logan’s dental director. In addition, Alvarenga said, some find it difficult and expensive to maintain their licenses and keep up with required continuing education courses just so that they can volunteer their time at the free clinic.

The situation leaves the clinic “in a limbo essentially,” Alvarenga said.

The clinic is down to about 30% of the patients it saw before the pandemic, he said, and that number is unlikely to change until it hires a supervising dentist to oversee third- and fourth-year dental students who perform most of the work.

Until his retirement in 2017, the bulk of the supervision of the student dentists was done by Dr. John Holbach, a Medicaid dentist whose practice was co-located with Red Logan in White River Junction.

Even before the coronavirus made recruiting and retaining volunteer dentists more difficult, Red Logan at times had to turn away about a dozen patients a week who needed more than immediate relief for pain or infection.

Amid the pandemic, Alvarenga said, the clinic had a waiting list of about 300 patients at one point but has since trimmed that number down to below 100.

Dental work has become more difficult during the pandemic, said Alvarenga, who has a periodontal practice in West Lebanon.

“It’s changed everything,” he said.

Dentists wear gowns, masks and face masks and spend more time with each patient, he said. As a result, Alvarenga said he is down to 50% of his practice.

Additionally, some patients are frightened of contracting COVID-19 especially as case numbers have risen in some parts of the country of late.

But Mike Auerbach, executive director of the New Hampshire Dental Society, said patients can feel comfortable returning to the dental chair.

“For the most part, the (personal protective equipment) is really what’s going to protect them,” Auerbach said.

Dental offices in New Hampshire began reopening for elective procedures on May 11 in accordance with state and federal guidelines, and as long as they had the necessary personal protective equipment, Auerbach said. Emergency services continued throughout the pandemic, he said.

The early reports Auerbach is hearing from Granite State dentists indicate that “patients are very wiling to go back to seeing their dentist,” he said.

But it will take some time for dentists to catch up on the backlog that built up over the roughly two months when they weren’t seeing patients except for emergencies.

It’s unclear when Red Logan might catch up. Alvarenga said he expects the search for a full-time supervising dentist will take at least six months.

“I’m not even sure where we’re going to look,” he said.

The clinic is hopeful it might recruit a new graduate that might be attracted to the mentorship that retired dentists can offer from a distance, even during the pandemic, said Dana Michalovic, Good Neighbor’s executive director.

Red Logan, which owns a condo in Wilder, also might be able to offer housing, she said.

Michalovic said the hope is to find someone willing to work for $100,000 to $125,000 annually, which might be more likely if Vermont would offer student loan forgiveness for dentists working with underserved groups.

Fortunately, the clinic is celebrating its most successful spring fundraising drive in its history with $50,000 in donations coming in June alone, she added.

The clinic’s board is likely to revisit the way it staffs Red Logan again in the next couple of years, as the pandemic plays out, she said.

“We’re trying to make the best move that we can for the people in the Upper Valley that otherwise don’t have care,” she said.

Medical care at Good Neighbor has been provided largely by phone and telehealth during the pandemic, said Dr. Paul Manganiello, the clinic’s medical director.

When patients need to be seen in person, staff members are scheduling appointments with precautions in place such as temperature checks, asking patients to wait in their cars and directing those with respiratory symptoms elsewhere, he said.

Red Logan is preparing for a possible surge in patients as job losses may result in losses of health insurance coverage.

“A lot of people may not have any coverage at all,” he said. “We’re expecting at least in the short term a larger volume.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.




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