Annual physicals; eyeglass prescription renewals; dental cleanings. All of these non-essential healthcare services have been put on hold as doctors from optometrists to dentists struggle to stay socially distanced from the few patients who require emergency services unrelated to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic.

Dr. Afira Hasan is an optometrist who owns Insight Vision Care at 7731 Flying Cloud Drive. She opened her doors just 18 months ago and had just gotten into the swing of running a small business when the coronavirus pandemic hit, she told Eden Prairie News.

"I feel like we're back to square one, a little bit," Hasan said in a phone interview. "Things were getting easier, I didn't have to work as hard, and then all of a sudden this happened."

Under Gov. Tim Walz's stay-at-home order, optometrists like Hasan may only provide emergency services to patients who need them. After discussions with her staff in the week prior, she closed her doors on March 18 and furloughed her employees for the month of April. The decision was simple, she said.

"It was mostly for the safety of us, the staff, and the patients," Hasan explained.

At Dentists of Eden Prairie, 13000 Technology Drive, Dr. Michael Perpich, DDS, has reduced the number of staff at his office as well: where there once were three dental assistance and two doctors, now just one doctor and two assistants are in the office when necessary. 

For patients whose glasses or contacts prescriptions were due to be checked at an appointment, Hasan has automatically approved a renewed prescription. And both Hasan and Perpich have done a few virtual appointments, providing telehealth services where they can.

Perpich has had two opportunities to practice teledentistry: one for a young boy whose retainer was bothering him, and another for a woman in her 60s whose gum was swelling painfully. In the boy's case, Perpich helped him fix the device over the phone; the woman, he had come in for a quick procedure. Among his colleagues, around 70% of virtual appointments are solved over the phone, while 30% end with the patient scheduling an emergency appointment, Perpich said.

With a huge increase of people cooking for themselves at home and experimenting with new recipes and types of food, Perpich is concerned about the heightened probability of people hurting themselves or breaking a tooth. Around 25% of emergency room visits in Minnesota are for non-traumatic oral pain.

With the right gear, the dentist's office is as sterile as they come. Perpich and his staff have a solid supply of the N95 masks used to protect healthcare workers, and dentistry has always been on the forefront of additional safety measures in health care, particularly since the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and 1990s.

"Dentistry has always been, since the early '90s when the AIDS crisis started, one of the early leaders in (personal protective equipment)," Perpich said. "Patients are walking into a mini operating room."

Perpich has already seen several patients for emergency procedures. On April 17, a patient drove 60 miles to his office for treatment because all of the dental offices close to her were closed.

"We firmly believe that the head is connected to the body," Perpich said, and he's concerned that if people don't treat oral pain as it occurs, it'll worsen as the pandemic continues and affect the rest of their body. When in doubt, his clinic is just a video call away, he said.

Hasan can diagnose and prescribe care for things like conjunctivitis (pink eye) and a popped blood vessel over a video call, while an emergency procedure may be necessary for something like corneal abrasion, retinal detachment or increased eye pressure, she said.

Both Dentists of Eden Prairie and Insight Vision Care have seen their profit margins shrink since the pandemic began.

"It's been challenging," Hasan acknowledged. "Health care aside, we are a small business too."

Hasan has tentatively scheduled her re-opening for May 4, based on Minnesota's guidelines. Perpich is projecting out into the summer, he said. The fluidity of the situation makes it hard to predict when it'll be safe to go back to a fully-staffed office.

"I'm not sure if we're in the second inning of a nine-inning game or the third," he admitted.

Eden Teller is the multimedia reporter for Eden Prairie News. She's passionate about fostering productive conversations and empowering communities. When she's not reporting, she can be found reading a book, on a hike or tackling home improvement projects.

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