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'If It's Not Us, Then Who?' Why One Dentist Became A COVID-19 Worker

Courtesy of the County of Los Angeles.
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When John Blake heard Gov. Gavin Newsom's urgent call for people with health backgrounds to help address the surge in COVID-19 patients, he was quick to sign up.

Before joining the California Health Corps, Blake was busy running a 50-person staff as the executive director of the nonprofit Children’s Dental Health Clinic in Long Beach.

But with dental providers being urged to limit routine services like dental cleanings, in part to free up personal protective gear for frontline health workers, Blake’s practice has dropped significantly.

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“Just like about all the dentists, we’re closed, only open to emergencies,” he said.

“We’re triaging people over the phone and doing teleconferencing to see what the truly urgent dental emergencies are, those we’ll bring in.”

Newsom hasn’t been shy about the need for more health care professionals as the pandemic continues. This week, he asked medical and nursing students, recent retirees, and part-time health professions to temporarily work for the state.

As a practicing dentist with an active license, Blake was struck by the populations that are being encouraged to apply.

“If they are going to start diving into the student population and certainly the retired population, then I have to think there is some worry out there, so why shouldn’t we jump in?” he said.


The idea is to get people with health care backgrounds vetted and into the field in preparation for a flood of coronavirus patients. The governor’s order says the state can suspend certain certification or licensing requirements during the emergency.

So far, California has more than 6,000 known coronavirus cases but the number is thought to be far higher due to minimal testing.

According to the state Health Corps website, those who sign up will be given a salary and malpractice insurance coverage. The new workers like Blake could be doing a variety of tasks, from testing to taking the vitals of recovering patients in overflow locations like convention centers and field hospitals. Work locations will vary, depending on regional needs.

Newsom didn’t specify the cost of the program but said some of it would be paid for by the federal government.

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No one knows exactly when the coronavirus will peak in California, meaning health workers like Blake could be assisting the effort for weeks. As long as he has the appropriate personal protective gear, like an N95 mask, Blake feels comfortable helping as long as he can.

“Yeah, I know I’m putting myself in harm’s way, but the other side of it is, if not us that have health care training, then who?” Blake said.

He sees dental teams, including assistants and hygienists, as an untapped group that could help out.

“I’m hoping there’s a bunch more [dental teams] that will sign up and can hopefully help out and let the medical professionals on the front line in the ICUs do what they do best,” Blake said.




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