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‘Need Is All Over Florida’ For Rural Dental Care Access During Pandemic

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Mikayla Carroll/WUFT
Two ACORN staff members examine a patient while wearing mandatory personal protective equipment. Dental care procedures have been considered high-risk throughout the pandemic.

The Alachua County Organization for Rural Needs shuttered its medical clinic in Bradford County in October 2019 because of funding cuts. Its dental clinic in Brooker, survived those cuts, but then closed for 10 weeks after the pandemic shut down much of the country in March.

When it reopened, the clinic had a key screening question for its patients: Did you have to go to an emergency room during the closure? Several of the 2,200 people ACORN serves each year answered yes, said Joseph Benton, the clinic’s executive director.

A lack of affordable dental care across north central Florida leaves limited options for many of those patients, particularly those from low income families. ACORN provides fillings, cleanings and other dental procedures, with or without insurance, at a low cost. The alternative for uninsured patients is a trip to the ER, then a pricey bill they must pay out of pocket, Benton said.

Since reopening, the clinic has seen a surge in patient visits, he said.

“There’s so few rural health clinics like ours which offer available dental care that people will travel a very long way to get it,” Benton added. “The need is all over Florida and all over the country, but it’s especially bad here at the moment.”

As an educational clinic, the help of dental students from the University of Florida and Santa Fe College is key to its operation, Benton said. The students could not work in the clinic the entire summer because of the pandemic, but they have returned to their rotations this fall, he said.

Cody Lowe, 26, a fourth-year dental student at UF from Naples, is among those completing an externship at ACORN. Lowe said she is glad to be back in the clinic and serving the community.

“ACORN clinic is near and dear in this area,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to provide dental care to people that wouldn’t be able to get it anywhere else.”

Patricia Henderson, 70, of Alachua City, has been an ACORN patient for 23 years. Henderson said her family are longtime fans of the staff, the treatment and its affordability.

When the family moved to Alachua County from St. Louis, it was difficult to find reasonably priced dental care, she said. Multiple people in the area referred her to the clinic.

“When you have two kids going to the university, and so many other things, it’s just been a lifesaver,” Henderson said.

During the pandemic, Henderson was fortunate not to need any emergency care. She has since resumed her appointments, though, after waiting patiently for it to reopen safely.

“I think any exposure, at that time, everybody was so nervous,” she said. “Especially people in my age bracket were being extremely cautious.”

The clinic recently learned that it would get a $150,000 grant from the state to expand its practice, hopefully as soon as January, Benton said. The plan is to expand into the former medical clinic’s space, thus increasing the number of chairs from eight to 12 by the end of 2021.

Hours would be extended, allowing the clinic to remain open later during the week and to hold a pop-up clinic Saturday each month. A second full-time dentist would join the staff in January.

ACORN would also use the added space to expand its oral health care services, Benton said.

To hear Henderson tell it, anything more that ACORN could provide is vastly appreciated.

“Knowing who I know, and knowing probably 20 families at least that take advantage of the facilities over the years, I would say that it’s contributed greatly to making affordable dental care available to middle class families and lower income families,” she said.