Santa Barbara dentist James Rolfe
Santa Barbara dentist James Rolfe is providing emergency dental services during the shelter-in-place order related to the coronavirus pandemic. (Joshua Molina / Noozhawk photo)

Santa Barbara’s dentists are feeling the economic impacts of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.

The California Dental Association has advised dentists to perform only emergency dental procedures for problems that could turn life-threatening.

Some dental clinics have chosen to close their doors altogether for the duration of the shelter-in-place order from the governor. Others are seeing patients on an emergency-only basis. 

“We are trying to suppress this spike that we saw in the Hunan province, where all the population got infected at once,” said James Rolfe, a dentist with an office off Patterson Avenue. “We are trying to spread that out over a period of time.”

Rolfe said the goal is to keep people from crowding the emergency rooms.

“We’re making sure everybody can get access to health care,” Rolfe said.

Dentists who have stayed open are treating broken teeth, extractions, abcesses and anything that results in extreme pain and could worsen into an infection or life-threating situation.

Rolfe was already a bit of a maverick in the dental industry. He takes insurance plans, but he says he will treat “anyone I can reason with.”

He has made several trips to Afghanistan, where he has set up clinics and treated patients who otherwise would not have access to dental care. He said he invested about $1.3 million out of his own pocket over the years to build the clinics and now lives on less than $1,000 a month.

The dental work, particularly for those during an emergency, hits home. Both of his parents had their teeth pulled young and wore dentures most of their lives because of poor dental care. 

“It’s something that when you have a dental problem, it is overwhelming, where you can’t think straight and it really affects your life,” Rolfe said. “It is a good service to be able to help people who are having a lot of pain or having trouble focusing, or can’t work, or have a fever.”

The Eastside Family Dental Clinic is also treating patients on an emergency basis. 

“A lot of dental offices are closed,” said Marbella Mariscal, a patient access navigator. 

Mariscal said the office staff haven’t seen as many patients as they thought — only about four per day, maximum. They screen potential patients over the phone first and then tell them to come in if they determine the situation is an actual emergency. 

Even the larger clinics such as Johnson Family Dental are feeling the sting. 

“I don’t think any small business can continue like this for more than two months,” said Steve Johnson, owner of Johnson Family Dental. “Most dentists are running month-to-month. If they are closed for three weeks or four weeks without revenue, it is going to be devastating.”

The clinic isn’t doing any elective procedures, but it is open for emergency care such as extractions, infections, abcesses, broken teeth or root canals. It’s also seeing patients come in from other offices that have closed.

“We are definitely here to help,” Johnson said. “We are still doing all of our normal dentist plans. We are working on payment plans for these services. We are not letting money right now be a barrier.”

Montecito dentist Peter Hartmann also is open for emergencies.

“The whole idea is to keep people out of the hospital,” Hartmann said. “I have been seeing people every day.”

His office is in the Montecito Village. He said he experienced an interruption similar to this after the 2018 Thomas Fire and debris flow. 

Right now, he said he’s encouraging people with appointments to reschedule about two months from now. 

He said he wants people to know that even during these uncertain times, people can find a dentist for emergency services. It’s not easy, though. Some dental offices have closed temporarily.

“I have elected to keep my staff,” Hartmann said. “I have elected to keep them employed. I don’t know how long that will last. The scary part is we don’t know how long this whole thing will go.”

Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.