Dr. Yanfang Ren (Photo: Keith Bullis)

There is pain that can’t be put on hold, shouldn’t be put on hold.

That’s why the Howitt Urgent Dental Care clinic at UR Medicine’s Eastman Institute for Oral Health remained open for emergency treatment after the pandemic hit Rochester. This was at a time when other dental clinics and dentists’ offices were closed to control the spread of the coronavirus.

From mid-March to the beginning of June, in an uncertain and frightening time, the clinic cared for 5,000 patients from 48 counties.

In an interview, Dr. Yanfang Ren, the head of the clinic, reflected on how his team responded to the challenges of the pandemic. A native of China, Dr. Ren came to Eastman Dental in 1996 and lives in Pittsford with his family. What follows are his thoughts, slightly edited for space and continuity:

Early warning

My hometown in China is in Henan Province, which is a neighbor to the Hubei Province, where Wuhan is, so that’s very close to the pandemic center. I basically had some kind of front row seat to look at this from the beginning.

By Jan. 23, in the last couple of days before the Chinese New Year, in the city of Wuhan, they started a very stringent lockdown. But at that time, many people already had left the city for the Chinese New Year holiday.

Five hundred thousand people from the city of Wuhan went back to Henan where my family still lives. My mother has lung cancer, and we were really fearful the disease would spread in Henan Province. But they were able to really manage it very effectively through hard lockdowns.

A safety net

In the Rochester area, the first COVID patient was on March 18th or 19th. But the dental clinic started to close on March 16. We stopped elective care and started to see only walk-in emergency patients who had pain or swelling or broken dentures — those types of issues.

As dentists, we did not really directly treat patients with COVID, but we continued to see urgent care dental patients, even at the height of the pandemic. The dental urgent care clinic at Eastman became sort of a dental safety net for the community.  

The risks

An issue with this disease is that there are many patients who have no symptoms but still can transmit the disease. So, the risk of transmission is pretty high.

That worried us a lot, from the very beginning. But we also knew that if we took correct protective measures, we could protect ourselves and protect our patients.

Most importantly, you need at least a surgical mask and, preferably, N95 masks, those special respirator masks. We needed eye protection. We needed isolation gowns, and a cap to cover the hair and gloves. We also geared up disinfection measures. We disinfect all the surfaces and added portable air cleaners in the treatment rooms.

International aid

The problem is that at the beginning of the pandemic, all the PPE (personal protective equipment) was in very short supply; we could find them nowhere. Dentists were not on anyone’s priority lists. At the beginning we didn’t have any N95 masks.

But our institution is very well-known internationally. We have a lot of collaborators in research and in training around the world. One of those countries is China. They found out we didn’t have those PPE, so they sent us N95 masks, protective goggles, face shields, isolation gowns and thermometers. That was a tremendous help. We got supplies from seven different universities in China.

Small packages

We also have some alumni who graduated from our program and went back to China to practice dentistry. They also got together and made a great effort to find those N95 masks, which at that time were in very short supply in China. Until early April, we mostly depended on supplies from our friends in China.

The supplies all came in small packages. We received 40 or 50 small packages. In China, this was considered restricted material during the pandemic. They didn’t want them to send out large quantities. There were many, many small packages.

And we got notes, very nice notes, that said we’re dealing with a common enemy, and if we work together we should eventually prevail.

Best practices

In late April, we organized an international forum. We opened it to dentists around the world; over 3,000 signed up for a discussion.

We discussed the strategies that we can use to better protect ourselves and to protect our patients. And what we should do more.

I can tell you that, because now we know a lot more about this disease and about its potential transmission, we feel much more comfortable compared with the beginning in treating patients.

Hitting home

You worry about your family. I’ve been here since January 1, every day. You always wonder is there any possibility I can bring (the disease) home. My mother-in-law lives with us. She’s 85 and has all the underlying conditions that you can see on any list.

Every day when I go home, I go directly to the basement and take a shower. I rinse my mouth with hydrogen peroxide; I clean my nose with povidone iodine — that I learned from the doctors in China. I change into new clothes. Then I go from the basement up to meet everybody. I’m still doing that every day.

I have two daughters. They are in college, but they are home now. Both of them were born here, in Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester. They are typical American kids, but they look like me. It’s very clear they are ethnically Chinese.

Sometimes I look at them and I feel pretty bad when I hear people talking on TV about the Chinese virus or about the Kung Flu and all that kind of stuff. I imagine they are quite sensitive to all the news and the hate crimes toward the ethnic Chinese. I do get emotional sometimes. I don’t know really how much this will affect them. That’s one thing that’s always on my mind.

More from Jim’s series: Some trees are readying for winter way before we’re ready

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From his home in Livingston County, retired senior editor Jim Memmott will document the new normal of living in a socially distant world. He can be reached at [email protected] or write Box 274, Geneseo, NY, 14454.

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