HUNTSVILLE — Walking into the offices of Ellis Family Dentistry is, in some ways, like a scene out of a movie. There is plastic sheeting everywhere, conjuring reminders of contamination rooms that everyone has seen Hollywood envision. You almost get the feeling that it might not be surprising to see someone in a hazmat suit.
There is no one in a hazmat suit, of course, and this is the furthest thing from a movie set. It’s a regular, hometown dentist office where every precaution is being taken against the coronavirus pandemic.
And while there is plastic sheeting covering the openings to every patient treatment area, the most elaborate part of the set-up is the new ventilation system that Dr. Spencer Ellis has put into place.
“This is to keep me safe. And you safe. And not just us but our extended families, and all of the people in our churches that are immunocompromised,” Ellis explains as he shows off the room.
Cleanliness has long been a priority for Ellis and his staff, since well before Covid-19 was ever a known contagion. He’s been practicing dentistry since 1999, and moved to his current location on Scott High Drive 10 years ago. During that time, Ellis said he has always worn masks while dealing with patients, and his staff wipes down the treatment areas between each patient.
“In the past 25 years, I’ve hardly ever gotten sick,” Ellis said. “The reason is, we clean everything every day. We’ve always cleaned. I’ve worn a mask for 25 years. When I’m dealing with a patient, that’s a chance for us to share whatever we might be carrying. So I wear a mask.”
Pre-Covid era, the precautions being taken by Ellis Family Dentistry put the dental clinic at the front of the pack when it comes to cleanliness precautions. But the global spread of coronavirus has forced anyone who works in close contact with other people to rethink their approach. That includes dentists, as well as hair-dressers, doctors and a wide variety of other people who deal directly with people.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, as Ellis was brainstorming ways to make his office safer, he came up with a ventilation system that would help create negative-pressure rooms.
The purpose of a negative-pressure room is for more air to go out of the room than comes in. They’re often used in isolation wards at hospitals. The point is to stop infectious agents from being spread.
The first step was the plastic sheeting, to stop aerosols contained to each patient treatment area. That was the easy part. The more complicated step was to build a ventilation system that would usher those aerosols out of the room and kill them immediately.
“I searched for four or five weeks before I came up with this,” Ellis said, pointing to an elaborate arm extending from the ceiling to the dental chair. There’s one in each of six treatment rooms inside the clinic, with two more rooms ready for the ventilation system to be installed, if needed.
The goal behind the elaborate setup is simple: “What’s crazy about this virus is you have an incubation period where you don’t know you have it and you’re contagious,” Ellis said. “That’s not like anything we have seen in the past. You can have tuberculosis and you’re symptomatic. You can have the flu, and if you have a fever you’re contagious but if you don’t have a fever you’re usually not contagious. This is a different animal.”
Medical researchers have long known that there’s a period of time at the onset of infection that Covid-19 patients are contagious but don’t realize they’re sick, because they’re pre-symptomatic.
“If you have the virus or if I have the virus, we can’t tell we have it and we spread it to everyone we come into contact with,” Ellis said. “That’s why this is the pandemic that it is.”
It’s that knowledge that has spurred worldwide recommendations that everyone wear masks when in public spaces. The CDC’s general guideline is that if you spend more than 10 minutes within six feet of someone who is sick, you might obtain a viral load that’s large enough to contract the virus. A routine dental cleaning or extraction easily falls within that criteria.
So, Ellis researched and purchased the materials he needed — they had to be shipped from overseas; buying them in the U.S. would’ve required them to be on back-order for months — to build the ventilation system. The way it works is not unlike similar ventilation systems used in hospitals in other parts of the world. A suction device hangs over each patient chair, suctioning aerosols that are expelled through breathing or coughing out of the room. From there, they go through four ultraviolet lights that kill the virus. The treated air can then be vented outside the building or recirculated through the clinic’s heat and air system.
Ellis is something of a pioneer in this approach. Other dentists, he said, aren’t necessarily using the method. With the help of his old grade-school buddy, Jeff West, whose daughter is on the staff at Ellis Family Dentistry, Ellis installed the system and he says they’re unlike most others being used.
“A lot of people have these things that are self-contained units,” he said. “They suction and go through a UV light, but it’s dispersed back into the room. The UV system is not nearly as big as what we put up.
“It works tremendously,” he added. “It’s pretty extravagant but it’s incredibly helpful.”
Ellis has been contacted by other dentists who have asked for his blueprints and help installing similar ventilation systems of their own.
“This is tremendous because I know I’m keeping myself safe, my girls here safe, and every patient safe,” he said.
In other parts of the world, such systems are already commonplace because hospitals often have patients placed in tighter quarters. In China or Thailand, for example, influenza patients or other patients who are contagious are often placed in close proximity to one another, making spread of the contagion much easier. So, the ventilation systems are put into place.
“I think this is the way of the future,” Ellis said. “Because we can’t turn around and go backwards. Even when we get this virus under control, there’s going to be another one down the line.”
For Ellis, it’s all about precautions. He isn’t shy about his stance that mask-wearing become commonplace. It’s not about forcing something on people, he said, but about a personal choice to protect those around us.
“I really do feel there’s a virus,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to disappear after the election. These dentists I’m in a group with, they’re all over the world, and they’re all dealing with the virus. So, it’s something they’ll fix, but how long will it take? My wife said, ‘You’re gonna put all the expense into doing this and then the virus is going to be gone.’ But I said this is gonna protect us against tuberculosis, it’s going to protect us against the next virus that comes along. We are going to be the safest place.”
Ellis, who is an ordained preacher in addition to being a dentist, said the key to defeating coronavirus is to get the politics out of it and do what Americans do best: Take care of each other.
“Everyone thinks this is politically motivated,” he said. “But it’s not. It’s just the opposite. We have this thing going on, and politicians are stretching it in every direction they can to get their spin on it, whoever it is. Republicans want it to go away because they’re there (in office). Democrats want to take advantage of it so they can fare better in the election. So they’re both doing the same thing. What we need is America to be America.
“I’ve been preaching for nine years and one of the things I find most comforting is that all these little churches are so spiritual and on fire to take care of each other,” he added. “I think that’s how this country has gotten along. All of these churches, they throw it down in prayer every day. That’s who they are.”
Various experts have said that if enough Americans wore a mask routinely and practiced other safety precautions like hand-washing routinely for a period of months, the coronavirus numbers would be brought greatly in check.
That hasn’t happened, and so the numbers continue to climb. But Ellis said that won’t stop his clinic from being a safe place for himself, his staff and his patients. And it isn’t just the ventilation system that sucks the virus out of the air and kills it with UV lights.
Ellis is also following the lead of a University of Connecticut study that was completed early in the pandemic. The study found that a simple mouth rinse — Providone-Iodine, or PVP-I — would kill Covid-19 and similar viruses in as little as 15 seconds, preventing transmission of the virus for several hours.
So every patients that enters Ellis Family Dentistry uses the mouthwash, which kills the bacteria in their mouth for several hours. The UConn study found no transmission of the virus after the mouth wash — which is not bad-tasting and is harmless — was used.
“We need to be doing something like that in the schools,” Ellis said. “When the kids come in the morning, they need to rinse. When they come back from lunch, they need to rinse. We need to do that in a lot of places.”
Together, Ellis said, the precautions that are being taken at his office is the way he can do his part to prevent people from suffering from Covid-19.
“There hasn’t been, to my knowledge, any transfer of viruses in a dental office yet,” he said. “But that was before anyone did anything.
“I wish we could put a finger in front of people and say, ‘Wear a mask, wear a mask, wear a mask,’” he added. “It’s not a freedom thing. You have the freedom to not wear it. But you also have the freedom to protect the people you love, and to protect people from not getting it.
“This is what we should be doing, and controlling what we can control.”