Washougal Family Dental opens after 2-month shutdown

Owners say business has been good since governor allowed elective dental procedures to continue in mid-May

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Cori Pacanins, wearing a face mask and "sneeze shield," treats a patient at Washougal Family Dental on Tuesday, June 9. (Contributed photo courtesy of Tarra Cochell, Washougal Family Dental)

Washougal Family Dental reopened to the public in mid-May, almost exactly two months to the day after it closed in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, and so far, says Tarra Cochell, office manager and co-owner of Washougal Family Dental, business has been good.

“It’s been a gradual step up to ‘full speed ahead,'” Cochell said. “We’re constantly monitoring everything to make sure we’re following the rules and adapting to the new office ‘flow,’ and taking things slowly, one day at a time, to make sure safety is our top priority. The patients wanting to come in definitely helps. We’re very busy, which is great. We weren’t sure which way it was going to go, whether people would be (hesitant) to come in or not, and they’re definitely not.”

Washougal Family Dental co-owner and dentist Justin Cochell wrote March 17 in a Facebook post that he would be closing his office at 5 p.m. that day because he felt that he “must do (his) part to protect lives, flatten the curve and prevent the spread of this infectious disease,” and to protect the health and safety of staff and patients.

Upon closing, the office donated 2,000 of its masks to the Camas-Washougal Fire Department.

“We felt like it was important (to close right away),” Tarra Cochell said. “We didn’t know much about (the virus) at the time, but we made what we thought was the best decision for everybody. Plus, we were able to donate our personal protective equipment (PPE) to people who really needed it at the time.”

Two days later, Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced a statewide ban on most non-urgent medical and dental procedures.

“Unless somebody was in severe pain, or wasn’t able to eat or something like that, we were not able to see (patients) for the longest time,” said Tarra Cochell, who worked to reschedule two months’ worth of appointments when the office was closed. “We received guidance from the American Dental Association which outlined what was considered to be an emergency situation, and followed that closely as could. That meant a lot of people that had issues but were not in pain were not getting care.”

Justin Cochell was forced to furlough most of his employees, who have since been re-hired.

“We just didn’t know what to expect,” Tara Cochell said. “The uncertainty (was the biggest challenge). Having to watch the (COVID-19 case) numbers every day to see if they went up or went down, and worrying if we’d have to be closed for weeks or months or through the fall, was stressful, for me at least. It was pretty scary there for a while because we didn’t know how long this was going to last and how hard it was going to be on the business in general. We really hoped that we could make it through.”

On May 18, they received welcome news when Inslee announced that elective dental procedures could resume if providers could meet certain requirements, such as providing personal protective equipment for workers; implementing social distancing and hygiene measures within their offices; screening patients and visitors for symptoms; using telemedicine when appropriate; and implementing policies to protect workers.

“Oral health is integral to overall health, and the ability to resume providing timely dental care will lead to improved oral health and better patient outcomes,” Bracken Killpack, executive director of the Washington State Dental Association, stated in a news release.

“We thought (Inslee) might extend the (shutdown) order, but we didn’t know,” Tarra Cochell said. “We half-expected to be kept closed down. We didn’t assume anything until we heard the word. We were kind of in limbo. The proclamation was expiring, and we weren’t really included in the phases (for re-opening); sort of phase one, but not really. It was a stressful time not knowing what to expect. We’re glad it went the way it did.”

Washougal Family Dental employees and patients are slowly getting used to the new restrictions and routines. Patients wait for their appointments in their vehicles and are screened for symptoms before entering the office. Employees are also regularly screened. The office has also purchased a large amount of new equipment, such as respirators, face shields and air purifiers, to comply with the new requirements.

“We never had to do some of these things before, so there are some new layers that have been added to the day,” Tarra Cochell said. “But at this point, it’s pretty similar to how we operated beforehand. Dental offices by nature have always been at the height of infection control, so there haven’t been a lot of things that we’ve had to do differently in terms of sanitization and things like that. Patients have asked questions about (safety issues), and if we as employees feel safe in the office, and we’ve said, ‘Yes, we feel absolutely safe.'”