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MyView: Masters of Splatter

January 07, 2021

By Kerry K. Carney, D.D.S.

Graphic of Masters of Splatter
Masters of Splatter, if there were such a superhero title, would belong to us.

As Masters of Splatter, we harness the forces of good to combat the forces of infection that threaten our patients, our practices, our very lives. Comic books/graphic novels and superheroes allow us to think of our world in an allegorical or symbolic way. They make it easier to grapple with and analyze complex problems and interactions. What if we reinterpret how dentists reduce risk and combat infection using a superhero model? (Perhaps I have watched “Guardians of the Galaxy” too many times during the COVID-19 shutdown. But bear with me as I try to conceptualize a more symbolic image of how we reduce our risks of exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19 and the aerosols that are part of our everyday practice in dentistry.)

Photo of Dr. Carney
Dr. Carney
In a superhero scenario, there should exist a supervillain. It is not much of a stretch to cast SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as that supervillain and COVID-19 as the global threat to life as we know it. Now picture the Dentist as the superhero. The Dentist is an everyday infection control warrior who may be unaware of their superpowers. It is in times of crisis, like the one we now experience, superheroes discover and learn to master the powers they wield.

Place our superhero into a version of Gotham City; we will call it the Practice. The Practice consists of four critical zones:

Zone 1: the oral cavity.
Zone 2: the 3-foot radius around the oral cavity. The Dentist, the Master of Splatter, must endeavor to protect their patients, staff and community as well as themselves.
Zone 3: the operatory.
Zone 4: the rest of the practice.

These are the areas that our superhero must vigilantly protect from contamination by the virus.

The Dentist has both a strategic battle plan and an arsenal of powerful weapons to deploy.
Consider first the battle plan: the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Hierarchy of Hazard Control. For our purposes, the standard five-level inverted
pyramid of feasible and effective control solutions will be modified into four levels. From top to bottom, these levels are:

- Removal/substitution.
- Engineering controls (isolating the hazard from people).
- Administrative controls (changing the way people behave).
- PPE (personal protective equipment, isolating people from the hazard).

The inverted pyramid is a great visual aid to help us understand that the most effective controls are on the top and their impact is diminished as we progress from the top to the bottom. But back to our superhero.

The Dentist, the Master of Splatter, must endeavor to protect their patients, staff and community as well as themselves.

To this end, the Dentist first employs the power of removal. By designing and carrying out careful screening and temperature taking, the Dentist is trying to keep the villain virus from entering the Practice. If screening were 100% effective, the Dentist would not have to call on other powers of risk control. But as we know from other superhero scenarios, no superpower is 100% effective. In our case, asymptomatic virus shedding appears to be one way the virus can slip past this defense and enter the Practice undetected.

Our Dentist’s next line of defense employs some of the most powerful engineering solutions. If the virus has succeeded in penetrating the Practice and resides in a patient’s oral cavity (Zone 1), then the goal must be to restrict the transmission from the oral cavity into the other zones of the Practice. To achieve this, our superhero must reduce the potential risks of aerosolizing the virus by way of rotary and ultrasonic instruments.

When aerosol generation is unavoidable, the Dentist can call on tried-and-true sidekicks: the rubber dam and the powerful high-volume evacuator (HVE). The rubber dam restricts transmission by isolating the virus behind the latex shield. Every superhero could use a shield (think Captain America).

The HVE acts as a powerful means of removing the potentially virus-laden aerosol at the source in that critical Zone 1. (Think Koshiro, an anime character whose superpower is vacuum forces that can draw in and rip his enemies to shreds.)

In order to contain the potentially infectious aerosolized virus from fomite transmission, our superhero’s teammates, the Assistants, play a crucial role in cleaning and disinfecting the operatory before and after a patient procedure. Without the Assistants, the superhero guardian, the Dentist, would be doomed to failure in infection control. (Imagine here the slow-motion, synchronized, determined walk of the Dentist and the Assistants approaching the camera, “Guardians of the Galaxy” style.)

We have moved through the first and second levels of the inverted pyramid of hazard control solutions. The third level is administrative. This involves changing the way people behave. It requires everyone in the Practice to operate with common sense in following recommended protocols to reduce transmission. In some ways, this is the hardest power to deploy. Because, as in the words of that 18th century superhero Voltaire, “common sense is not very common.” Getting people to behave in a common-sense manner requires the superpowers of persuasion and consistency.

Mandating that everyone in the practice wash their hands frequently, maintain physical distance and wear face coverings modifies behavior with the goal of reducing viral transmission. The Dentist will have to change some diagnostic and treatment behaviors as well. It will be necessary to choose nonaerosol-creating therapeutic interventions whenever possible. The use of silver diamide fluoride and minimally invasive procedures can help reduce the aerosol generation that can give COVID-19 wings.

Finally, we come down to the ultimate, thought with the smallest sphere of influence, weapon in our hero’s arsenal: PPE. In Marvel Comics, the last superpower may not seem extraordinary at all. This pedestrian power is usually something like truth or love, but it usually overcomes evil by reinforcing humanity’s inherent goodness. In the case of the Dentist in the Practice, the last and smallest of their risk controls is a barrier that prevents the hazard from contacting the vulnerable mucosal tissues and respiratory tract.

If all the other hazard controls were 100% effective, the Dentist could provide surgical procedures in a T-shirt and shorts (or in our superhero’s case, in the Leotard of Justice). This last barrier between health and infection is critically important to stop that supervillain virus from inoculating the dental health care providers. However, PPE is not infallible. We cannot guarantee it will always protect us. To minimize risks, the Dentist must use the powers available across all levels of the inverted pyramid of hazard-control solutions.

Consistent, effective teamwork in the performance of carefully designed and executed infection control plans is what protects our patients, our staff, our communities and ourselves. In the words of one of my favorite philosophers, Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.” It is the Dentist who wields the power of effective hazard controls. These risk mitigations derive from years of experience and an ever-increasing knowledge base rooted in the never-ending battle against infection.

Who better than the Dentist, our superhero, to marshal the forces of good to combat the forces of evil?

Who better than dentists to don the mantle of responsibility as infection control experts in the Practice and assume their rightful title as Masters of Splatter?

We are the Masters of Splatter.  

Dr. Carney is the editor of the Journal of the California Dental Association.

Reprinted with permission from the California Dental Association, copyright October 2020.