A dental team from Yellowknife are resuming their visits to the Sahtu region and are facing overwhelming demand for their services in Norman Wells.
“Every day we’re seeing 18 to 20 patients. We work from 9 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. minimum. We were fully booked before we arrived,” said Dr. Pirjo Friedman, a dentist from Adam Dental Clinic who visited the region on Jan. 18.
The visit comes more than six weeks after Health Minister Julie Green announced that dental trips could resume to six rural and remote communities including Fort Providence, Sambaa K’e, Fort Simpson, Aklavik, Fort Resolution and Norman Wells.
Friedman’s team is scheduled to spend 10 days from Jan. 18 seeing patients at a temporary clinic in the Sahtú Got’iné Regional Health and Social Services Centre in Norman Wells.
Patients are coming in from all of the Sahtu communities including Colville Lake, Fort Good Hope, Deline, Tulita and Norman Wells.
“They’re very welcoming and appreciative,” Friedman said.
It has been almost one year since Friedman last travelled to the Sahtu to provide dental services, after dental travel was suspended by the chief public health officer when the Covid-19 pandemic began last March.
The long delay in dental travel is partly due to the fact that many remote communities lack health infrastructure that can satisfy Covid-19 regulations on dental procedures.
One issue is that health facilities with only one or a few rooms can’t circulate air fast enough to meet rules on air changes per hour, a measurement of the time it takes to remove airborne bacteria or infectious aerosols from the air.
That problem has been mitigated at the Norman Wells dental clinic because its HVAC air system isn’t shared with the Sahtú Déné Néchá Ko Long Term Care facility, which is in the same building, according to the Covid-19 mitigation plan for the Norman Wells dental room.
“For the other health centres we bring our own portable units that have suction to suck up saliva or water or blood. I bring portable bottles for that but they’re not very safe.”
While Friedman said she’s excited to be seeing patients again in the Sahtu, she feels the 10 days of appointments won’t be enough and she continues to advocate that Norman Wells become a dental hub for the region.
“Maybe 10 days every month would be enough. If we’re going to serve the other communities in Sahtu I’m really concerned that it’s not enough time,” she said.
“After this, the next trip is in March but I recommend we come in February too to keep up with the patients. We have too many people calling every day for appointments but we have nothing (more) to offer this trip.”
Norman Wells mayor Frank Pope said the community is very pleased to welcome the dental team.
“We have, and have had, many people requiring dental care over the past eleven months,” Pope said. “Some were able to get help by flying to Yellowknife, however the majority suffered and waited for service to resume.”
Pope remarked that even those who have been able to fly to Yellowknife for oral care pay about $2,500 for air and hotel costs, not including the fees for dental services. Not all residents have their costs covered.
In September of 2020, he spoke in favour of a full-time, permanent dental service in the Sahtu to meet the needs of residents and offset the high costs of travel to Yellowknife.
“I would think the 10-day clinic will be well attended. Next step will be for the dental provider to prepare a schedule of visits for the next year,” he said.
Friedman’s next visit outside of Yellowknife will be to Fort Resolution for Feb. 7 to 12. Before Covid, she made regular trips to seven communities that included Fort Good Hope, Whati and Lutsel K’e.
In many other NWT communities where dental services have not yet restarted, the Non-Insured Health Benefits (NIHB) program continues to pay the medical transportation costs of NIHB clients, said Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson Leslie Michelson.
“This interim measure will continue, on an as-needed basis, until dental services are able to fully resume operations in all established community facilities,” she said.
The remaining communities where dentists visited before the Covid-19 pandemic can resume operations when contracts are ready; facility upgrades are complete and inspected and meet Covid-19 safety protocols, Green said.
Those efforts are expected to continue throughout 2021 and 2022.