A dental examination room in London, England.
A dental examination room in London, England.
Photo: Getty Images

With states across the U.S. beginning to relax distancing restrictions related to covid-19, plenty of people are probably questioning whether they should get back to normal activities, including scheduling non-urgent medical appointments like physicals and teeth cleanings. So let’s talk about it.

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In truth, any outing that puts you in close contact with other people also puts you at risk of catching the coronavirus, so this is really about weighing the risks and benefits of getting routine medical care. But that ever-present risk doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make an appointment if you feel you need one.

When the pandemic first picked up steam in the U.S. in March, professional medical organizations along with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention largely took the same tack: They asked patients and doctors to reschedule medical visits that weren’t urgent, such as annual check-ups and non-emergency procedures. Many doctors’ offices implemented telehealth programs to compensate for these delays.

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The viral disease has now claimed upwards of 100,000 lives in the U.S. alone. But while some areas of the country are still dealing with worrying trends in new daily cases and hospitalizations, the pandemic as a whole does appear to be slowing down. Some organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, have maintained throughout the pandemic that kids still need some routine medical care that can’t be provided through the phone or internet, particularly their vaccinations.

For easily understandable reasons, though, vaccine-related medical visits took a sharp plunge across the country during March and April, according to data compiled by the CDC. While delaying your child’s vaccinations for a month or two isn’t necessarily catastrophic, it can definitely be a big problem as the country starts to open up. Measles and many vaccine-preventable diseases spread the same way that covid-19 does, and as restrictions on distancing are relaxed, the risk of outbreaks of any disease goes up as well.

“We need a certain percentage of children vaccinated to be able to keep a virus or a bacteria from taking over and becoming another epidemic,” Sally Goza, president of the AAP, told Gizmodo over the phone. “A measles outbreak would be devastating on top of the pandemic, so would whooping cough. And come fall, we’re going to have the flu vaccine as well. So it’s really important to get these children back into the office.”

Other organizations have since relaxed their stance on routine and non-urgent medical visits. The American Dental Association, for instance, ended its recommendation to suspend non-essential dental care on April 30, while also providing guidelines for dentists on how to open safely and minimize the risk of infection for themselves and their patients. These include limiting the size of waiting rooms and asking people to wait outside; temperature checks before entering; and avoiding procedures that can create aerosols from a person’s mouth if possible.

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The American Academy of Family Physicians has similarly created guidelines for doctors’ offices that are reopening, such as screening patients for symptoms before their visits, having employees working in dedicated separate shifts to avoid cross-contamination, and plenty of hand sanitizer for everyone. The CDC stopped recommending that people avoid the doctor for non-urgent care in late May. States such as Florida also began lifting restrictions explicitly limiting non-essential medical visits in late May, while New York—the state most hard-hit by the pandemic—followed suit last week.

When it comes to transmission in a medical setting, it’s doctors and other health care workers who are most at risk from catching covid-19 from patients, not vice-versa.

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“Pediatricians have done an excellent job of making their practices be very safe for patients to come in,” said Goza. “We’ve pretty much done away with waiting rooms. When people come in, we have them wait in the parking lot and then call them when we have a room available. The chairs, the exam rooms, doorknobs, everything is cleaned in-between patients. And we’re still doing virtual visits for a lot of our sick patients. So we don’t have to bring those patients in unless they really need to have an exam.”

For routine appointments like teeth cleaning or screenings, it would make sense to continue to postpone if your area’s covid-19 cases remain high or are increasing or if you are in a high-risk group for complications. But if you or a loved one is experiencing pain or other long-lasting symptoms, that’s a more immediate problem that should be looked at before it gets worse.

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If you want some extra context for your decision, the New York Times on Monday released a poll that asked epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists when they would feel comfortable doing certain activities, provided the pandemic response continues as expected. Sixty percent said they plan to make a non-urgent doctor appointment this summer, while 89 percent said they would do so within the next three to 12 months.

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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