A survey of nearly a thousand people who were tested for COVID-19 antibodies at the School of Dentistry this summer examined how the pandemic is affecting the life experiences of essential workers, including dentists.

The research project looked at the important role dentistry can play within the broader health care system by helping to monitor public health during and beyond the current pandemic.

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The study, “Impact of COVID-19 on Life Experiences of Essential Workers Attending a Dental Testing Facility,” was posted on the website of JDR Clinical and Translational Research in advance of being published in the January 2021 print issue of the journal.

Researchers analyzed surveys completed online by 984 people who were tested for COVID antibodies during May and June at the School of Dentistry. The tests were for essential workers in three categories: those who work in dentistry, those in other health care fields and those in non-health care fields, including first-responders such as police and fire personnel.

Lead author Margherita Fontana, the Clifford Nelson Endowed Professor and professor of dentistry, said several important themes emerged from the study.

“Our findings support that dental workers are as vulnerable as other essential workers to the psychological impacts of COVID-19, and that testing may help alleviate stress and anxiety associated with these pandemics,” she said.

“The study also supports the acceptability and satisfaction of testing done in a dental setting, highlighting a role that dentistry can play within the health care system by helping with testing and other surveillance methods during a pandemic.”

Researchers also found that dental providers reported being less afraid of COVID-19 than the other two essential worker groups.

“That may be because we have long been attentive to employing procedures and personal protective equipment to safely provide care in the high-risk environments we work in,” Fontana said.

Robert Eber, clinical professor of dentistry and director of clinical research, was the principal investigator. He led a team of faculty members and staff who prepared the testing protocols, procured supplies, obtained approval to conduct the research survey, and trained those who are administered the tests.

“As difficult as the pandemic is, it provides an opportunity for us to perform a valuable service for the community in the antibody tests,” Eber said. “Plus, gathering the additional survey information from nearly a thousand people helps inform best practices moving forward.”

Other co-authors of the study in addition to Fontana and Eber are School of Dentistry Dean Laurie McCauley, the William K. and Mary Anne Najjar Professor in Periodontics and a professor in the Department of Pathology at the Medical School; Mark Fitzgerald, associate dean for community-based collaborative care and education and an associate professor in the Department of Cariology, Restorative Sciences and Endodontics; Emily Yanca, research project manager in CRSE; and George Eckert, Department of Biostatistics, Schools of Medicine and Public Health, Indiana University.

“We made the decision early in the pandemic to provide a COVID antibody testing site for essential workers in our community and combined it with the research element to measure public perceptions related to the pandemic,” McCauley said.

Additional survey findings include:

  • More than 90 percent of respondents said they always or frequently engaged in preventive measures, such as wearing masks.
  • More than 70 percent were sometimes, frequently or always worried about their friends and loved ones contracting COVID-19 and of resulting financial problems, although dental workers were significantly less worried than non-dental health care and non-health care providers.
  • For all groups, more than half of the respondents stated that the pandemic had a negative (somewhat worse or worse) impact on daily life (59 percent), interactions with others (65 percent), stress levels (66 percent), and enjoyment of life (56 percent).
  • More than half of the respondents stated that the pandemic had a positive impact (same, somewhat better, or much better) on caring about one another, self-care and exercise.
  • More than two-thirds of respondents said knowing the results of an antibody test would decrease their level of stress and anxiety.
  • More than 80 percent said a COVID-19 test received in a dental setting is acceptable, that they were “definitely” satisfied and would “definitely” recommend it to a friend, family or coworker.
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