A Ride to Remember
Willmar Dentists Reflect on Suspending and Re-opening Practice
Like every other dental office across Minnesota, Hanson & Fonkert Dental in Willmar, Minnesota, abruptly closed March 17, 2020 in response to the Governor’s Executive Order suspending all non-emergency oral health care to slow the spread of COVID-19. At the time, Dr. Jodi Fonkert '93 and her husband Dr. Mike Hanson '92 had no idea if the closure would last two weeks, two months or two years.
“The difficult choice we made in that moment was to layoff all but two staff and help everyone apply for unemployment right there in the office,” said Fonkert. “It was painful, but necessary. Looking back, I am so glad we did that. It helped alleviate some financial uncertainty for the team and the practice.”
Three months later, the practice is fully staffed again with new protocols and procedures in place. The changes are dramatic from scheduling to screening to new equipment. Hanson and Fonkert ordered high volume evacuation systems, face shields, N95 masks, HEPA air filters, and gowns.
“We had to rethink the entire patient experience and the result is a slower and more deliberate pace for all of us,” said Fonkert in June. “As dentists, we learned we had to become the strong ones in all of this, and clearly convey all the precautions we are taking to staff as well as patients. Communication has become even more important.”
Hanson and Fonkert continued to treat emergency cases during the closure while they worked on their reopening plan. They ordered and tried out new equipment and supplies and read up on new safety procedures for oral health.
“One of our greatest worries was that patients would not return because they were afraid,” said Fonkert. “We did not know exactly what we were planning for. But our patients did come back. Our hygiene schedule is booked through November and we are back 100 percent.”
Fonkert says their team of front desk staff, dental assistants, hygienists and dentists now wear masks all day. While this is the least popular of the changes in their office, the team understands that if one of them contracts COVID-19, the entire practice will have to shutter for two weeks. She says she is surprised by the large number of older adults who are making appointments and wants to keep them safe.
The huge volume of laundry generated by the need to change surgical gowns between patients has been a challenging surprise for the practice. Having their own laundry room in the clinic has been cost effective, but has added another burden to the team throughout the day.
Hanson said local dentists in town have met on a regularly-scheduled Zoom call to share ideas and information.
“We were all facing similar challenges so it helped to learn how colleagues in the area were coping and what they were hearing,” said Hanson. “We were able to secure masks from the county in addition to those we received from the Minnesota Board of Dentistry.”
While the disruption was a set-back, Fonkert says the break provided some time for reflection and rest.
“We realized that this may be the longest break we have until we retire,” she said. “We decided to make the most of it and do some things we had been meaning to do for a long time. Also, many of our staff expressed appreciation for their jobs and said they missed coming to work. We love to hear that.”
She said the lesson that is emerging is that they are all dependent upon one another to work as a team. They each come to work now with a bit more gratitude.