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Patient numbers dwindle at FSW's dental cleaning clinic due to COVID-19 pandemic

Pamela McCabe
Fort Myers News-Press

Lyndsey Gype cannot help but feel excited as she rounds out her last semester in Florida SouthWestern State College’s dental hygienist program.

The 26-year-old from Estero is on the brink of finishing her last four courses in the two-year program and is stepping into test-prep mode. In the coming weeks, she and her peers will start a rigorous testing schedule to knock out four licensing exams required to enter the workforce after their May graduations.

While Gype says the next couple of months feel “overwhelming” and bring about “a lot of stress,” there’s one area where she feels fully confident: working with patients.

But getting that all-important hands-on experience has been more difficult this year as the teaching clinic at the Fort Myers campus has seen a plunge in patients amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

FSW dental hygiene student Ali Tebo cleans Jeffery Hall's teeth on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers. The students get regular clinical practice and patients get dental cleanings and X-rays at a discount at the clinic.

At this point in the semester, second-year students, like Gype, should be seeing four patients a day — two in the morning, two in the afternoon.

"…We are supposed to have four patients a day, but they are trying to get us at least three right now,” Gype said.

The clinic regularly sees about 3,000 patients a year, but clientele has dropped by 50% during the pandemic, said program director Karen Molumby.

“We typically have a waitlist,” Molumby said. “We have people on the waitlist, but they're either hesitant to come in due to maybe their medical health personally, or they're concerned that the virus may be active here because where is the virus typically? Orally.”

In normal years, second-year students ramp up to cleaning the teeth of six patients a day by March and eight a day by April. Eight patients is considered a normal expectation in private practice, Molumby added.

At this rate, she doubts that will happen.

“We can give them experiences, but just not the same as what we would be doing,” Molumby said.

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Linda Reese has her teeth cleaned by FSW dental hygiene student Selina Martinez on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers.

Other Lee County career training programs have felt the impact of COVID-19, too.

The school district, for example, operates technical colleges in Cape Coral and Fort Myers. Each have seen a decrease in people coming in for services since the pandemic hit, reports Rob Spicker, a spokesperson for the school system.

He said the barbering and cosmetology program at Cape Coral Technical College has seen a 25% decrease in salon clients each week, with Fort Myers Technical College reporting that the center saw a 50% drop in clientele in January compared to this time last year.

It isn’t surprising that programs that rely on community clients are seeing clientele dips, especially as people in high-risk categories want to reduce the chances of being exposed to COVID.

But health professionals, like Molumby, worry that patients are delaying regular teeth cleanings and exams, which can end up costing patients more in the end.  

Unlike a cold, which could get better with time, oral health issues, like cavities and gum disease, only get worse.

The mouth, explained Molumby, is home to bacteria. Without regular care from experts, patients face an increased risk of tooth decay and gum disease.

“It's very important for the community to seek out services, so that, No. 1, that doesn't become another problem that they have to overcome,” she said.

FSW’s dental clinic is open to the public

Since opening 20 years ago, the campus-run dental clinic has provided low-cost teeth cleanings to about 15,000 people.

Because it operates as a teaching clinic, first- and second-year dental hygiene students are guided by licensed dental experts through the ropes of oral health checkups, where they learn how to take X-rays, measure gum recession, remove plaque and polish teeth.

Faculty members include dental hygienists, two general dentists and one periodontist, which is an expert in diagnosing and treating gum disease.

Although the clinic offers sealant services to children, the clinic is non-restorative, so patients need to go out to the community’s private practices for fillings, caps and bridges.

Students clock 16 hours a week in the onsite clinic in addition to taking 21 courses, or a total of 88 credit hours. The program enrolls 36 students at a time, 18 in each level, and the program boasts that 92% of the students who start the program finish. 

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Ali Tebo cleans her dental instruments while working at the dental clinic on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers.

For the past 25 years, the program has earned a 100% pass rate on the national board licensing exam, and the 26th class of students wants to keep that trend going. 

“I love this program,” said Selena Martinez, 26, a second-year dental hygiene student from Lehigh Acres. She had been in another dental program before coming to FSW and said the training “outweighs the other.”

“It’s very intense — hard — but I think it produces great hygienists,” Martinez said. “The faculty and staff have really trained us with the best knowledge and experience to prepare me to work for a dentist.”

Dentists in the community regularly report back to the college that they would “have had no idea” a student just graduated because of how well prepared they were for the job, Molumby said.

Clinical coordinator Clori Atkins, a licensed dental hygienist who has been on faculty for about 10 years, said she often hears from local dentists about the students they hired.

“We get very good feedback from the dentists in the community on how well our students take X-rays, which is so helpful to diagnose decay and periodontal disease, the two big diseases, main diseases, in dentistry,” she said.

Clori Atkins, left, an instructor at the FSW dental hygiene school, works with student Ali Tebo, center, to clean the teeth of Jeffery Hall on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers.

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Patients are quick to offer positive feedback about FSW’s program, too.

New client Jeffery Hall was struggling to find a local private practice that could do a cleaning before the end of March. The 32-year-old’s wife had come into FSW’s clinic and raved about the experience, so he gave them a call.

“The experience has been amazing so far,” said Hall, of Fort Myers, who was halfway through his exam.

X-rays of his mouth were displayed on a nearby monitor, and second-year student Ali Tebo, 27, was reviewing her measurements of gum recession pockets with her instructor, Atkins.

Pointing to the student, Hall said, “She’s really gentle, and I think she’s ready. I have had experience with dental offices, and she, to me, is more professional than what I’ve had in the dental offices.”

Safety first during COVID-19 pandemic

While safety has been a key component in the clinic's 20-year history, the teaching facility follows strict COVID protocols that include social distancing, lower capacity numbers, mandatory health questionnaires and temperature checks of patients, students and employees.

Air purifiers have been brought into the clinic, paper forms are now electronic, water used during exams is purified by tablets and every high-touch surface —from computer keyboards to overhead light fixtures —are covered in protective liners.

FSW dental hygiene student Monica Rodicio shows how the students and instructors wear two masks, goggles, and a hair net as well as a gown and shoe covers to help prevent the spread of germs at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers.

When on the clinical floor, students and employees double up on masks, which include a KN95 and a level 3 mask. Hair coverings, face shields, glasses, gloves, scrubs and shoe covers create head-to-toe protection.

“The PPE has probably absorbed most of my budget than it did the previous years,” Molumby said. FSW reports the program has spent an additional $18,000 on protective gear in the clinic, an uptick that was covered by the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Clinic workers also change into and out of their clinic uniforms onsite and get sprayed down regularly with a fogging machine that spritzes out hydrochloric acid.

“I can assure you that we have gone through all the necessary steps to make sure that the clinic is protecting the patient and protecting the students and faculty,” Molumby said.

Tom Flaherty, a 74-year-old from Ohio who winters in Miromar Lakes, has been a regular in the clinic for four or five years.

“At home, I have a dentist and I see him every three months, so when I am down here from January to April, I try to stay on the same schedule,” he said.

As for seeking oral exams during the pandemic, Flaherty said it feels no different than any other year.

Tice resident Linda Reese, 65, has been coming off and on since 2013. She said the clinic staff has always been “very cautious” and the facility is safe and clean.

When asked if she was nervous about coming in for a cleaning, she responded: “Not at all.”

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FSW dental hygiene student Monica Rodicio is sprayed with the defogger on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021, at Florida SouthWestern State College in Fort Myers. The clinic has implemented new cleaning procedures to keep the students, staff and patients safe.

FSW's clinic is ideal for people without dental insurance and those with some extra time on their hands, such as retirees. The cleanings can take up to three or four hours, depending on a student’s experience level or whether the patient is new to the clinic.

The fee schedule is as follows:

  • Adults 18 and older: $50
  • Children 17 and younger: $30
  • Return visit to complete a cleaning: $10
  • Sealants for children: $5 total, regardless of the number of teeth sealed

The service fees help support the replacement of equipment due to wear and tear. 

For more information or to request an appointment, call 239-985-8334.