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Staying safe from COVID-19 means distance, barriers, screening and cleaning

UTHealth Environmental Health and Safety staff fit N95 masks for School of Dentistry employees who will be working in close contact with patients.
UTHealth Environmental Health and Safety staff came to the School of Dentistry to fit N95 masks for employees who will be working in close contact with patients. Photo by Rhonda Whitmeyer.
Staff Nurse David Posado checks a temperature at the School of dentistry entrance.
Everyone entering the School of Dentistry is now checked for fever and questioned about symptoms and travel history. Photo by Rhonda Whitmeyer.

With concerns about the spread of COVID-19, administrators at UTHealth School of Dentistry at Houston have had the health and safety of patients, students, and employees to consider.

“We've all been affected in so many ways,” said Dean John Valenza, DDS. “COVID-19 has certainly created new demands and opportunities on a scale we never before imagined, not just in how we continue the education of students and care for our patients, but in how we go about our daily lives.”

Valenza has worked closely with the Office of Patient Care and the school’s Administrative Council to tackle a wide range of problems, challenges and opportunities.  

The Office of Patient Care is comprised of two divisions — Patient Services, under the direction Anna Trieu, MHA, RHIA, CPC; and Clinical and Educational Support Services, led by Jonathan Green. Sophia Saeed, DMD, oversees both areas as the associate dean for patient care, but she’s new to the job in Houston. Her first day was March 2.

“Starting a new job amid a pandemic, I’ve had to hit the ground running,” she said. “It’s been a little bizarre meeting people through phone and video conferences, but making sure we’re staying up-to-date with guidelines and evidence has been a unique and rewarding opportunity.”

UTSD was on the forefront of safety measures in the Texas Medical Center, taking steps to respond to the growing crisis:

  • March 4: For the first time ever, UTSD canceled Give Kids A Smile Day, an event that would have provided free dental care to 300 local children through hundreds of volunteers from the school and the Greater Houston Dental Society.
  • March 10: As they entered the building, UTSD began screening all patients and visitors for COVID-19 exposure.
  • March 18: Building entry was restricted to the first-floor lobby, so that everyone coming inside, including employees, could be screened for temperature and potential exposure.
  • March 23: All didactic classes moved online and all clinics closed except to provide emergency care to patients of record.
  • March 30: Patient care was restricted to urgent and emergent needs only and consolidated into the UT Dentists faculty group practice.
  • March 31: Through the diligent work of faculty and staff, UTSD launched a dental information hotline. Between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, people with dental emergencies or concerns could call 713-486-4000, Option 1 to speak with a live representative and receive information and assistance (and referral for non-patients of record).
  • April 6: All individuals entering the building were provided a surgical mask to minimize the amount of spray from the wearer. In addition, faculty and staff were provided appropriate PPE, and trained on donning/doffing equipment, and maintaining a safe work environment. They were afforded an opportunity to shower and change clothes before returning home.

The lobby screening process, coordinated by Trieu and Administrative Manager Abhinand "Abhi" Rangarajan, MHA, has seen overwhelming support from departments across UTSD with employee volunteers and others accepting assignments up front. In addition, Green continues to work with suppliers and vendors to ensure the building maintains adequate supplies of personal protective equipment to keep everyone safe.

“I’m amazed at the teamwork, patience, flexibility, and adaptability I’ve seen,” Saeed said. “We will continue to re-assess as we go, which means our policies, protocols, and processes will evolve as the information changes.”

At times like these, she adds,” successful leadership means taking information in from various sources and people, listening to your community, being humble, taking strategic risks, and communicating effectively.”

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