WASHINGTON – The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), the largest union representing 270,000 Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees, is speaking out against VA dental practices that directly violate Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines and put veterans’ health at risk.
After being closed for two months, the dental clinic at the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago failed to implement safety precautions to protect veterans. Upon arriving for treatment, veterans are screened and have their temperatures taken. They are then brought to an open area – often called “bays” – where there are five socially-distanced chairs and dental work is performed. Although there are partial partitions, the veterans are still breathing in the same air with no special filters or additional protections. For 30 minutes to an hour they are more vulnerable to COVID-19 through aerosol or airborne transmission, due to breathing in particles released from other veterans’ mouths during treatment.
“Scientists have told us that the bits of fluids can linger in the air for minutes to hours. There is no reason why veterans should have their teeth drilled and cleaned while other veterans are eight to tenfeet away with their mouths open, breathing in those same particles,” AFGE National President Everett Kelley said. “It is unacceptable that the VA is putting our nation’s heroes at this unnecessary risk to contract the virus. The VA must follow CDC guidance and address this issue to slow the spread of COVID-19 in North Chicago and in their facilities across the country.”
CDC guidance recommends that dental facilities avoid aerosol generating procedures whenever possible and if they must be performed, they should ideally take place in an airborne infection isolation room. CDC also recommended facilities consider the use of a portable high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter while the patient is undergoing, and immediately following, an aerosol generating procedure and provide treatments in individual patient rooms with a closed door.
According to VA reporting, the North Chicago facility has the highest amount of active COVID-19 cases among VA facilities nationwide. One employee at this facility has succumbed to the virus.
Recently, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health ordered the San Quentin State Prison’s dental clinic to cease many of its procedures, citing that aerosol-generating procedures and others have contributed to the spread of COVID-19 within the prison.