Aug 17, 2020 - Health

Dental care is rebounding, for now

Illustration of yellowed toy teeth.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Dentists' offices are reopening and working overtime, and dental suppliers are optimistic things are close to returning to normal after the coronavirus put the industry on ice for almost two months.

Why it matters: Cleaning teeth and filling cavities, by their nature, require close contact with the vessel that spreads the virus. That has some experts worried, and the World Health Organization this month advised people to delay routine dental care until COVID-19 transmission rates decline further.

Driving the news: Almost every part of the dental industry lost money and shed jobs during the lockdowns, but people are making appointments and buying products again.

  • Almost all dentist offices are open now. Revenues are still expected to fall by 40% this year.
  • Global dental supply sales at Henry Schein, a supply distributor, dropped 41% in the second quarter. But Henry Schein CFO Steven Paladino told investors this month that "in the states in the U.S. that are showing an increased infection rate for COVID, we're not seeing any significant falloff in patient demand."
  • Sales at dental equipment manufacturer Dentsply Sirona plummeted 51%. Dental patients are returning at a gradual pace, executives said, and July volumes were looking better than June.
  • Sales at Align Technology, which makes Invisalign teeth straighteners, fell 41% in the second quarter. Align CEO Joseph Hogan told investors he was "incredibly optimistic ... we don't see another COVID shutdown on a major market that lasts a long period of time," and the company is trying to reach more teens during the pandemic by signing a promotional deal with social media influencer Charli D'Amelio.

Between the lines: Just like large medical insurers, fewer people visiting their dentist has been a boon for dental insurers.

  • However, deferring dentist appointments is leading to emergency procedures, and "we fully expect" to see more of that this year, said David Holmberg, CEO of Highmark Health, which owns United Concordia Dental.

The big picture: Federal health officials have not documented any COVID-19 cases within dentists' offices.

  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consequently isn't matching WHO's call to postpone routine services, but the agency is telling dentists to provide care "only after you have assessed the patient and considered both the risk to the patient of deferring care and the risk" to staff and patients of transmitting the virus.

The bottom line: Dentists and hygienists have more protective equipment now than they did early on, but oral care will be the first health service to get paused again if outbreaks continue to worsen.

Go deeper