The dental industry may be a good indicator of whether Americans have fully recovered from the pandemic, according to a June New York Times article. This is because dentists offer a unique service that has no clear alternative.

Since the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic hit the U.S. in early March, the national economy has seen a downturn and a subsequent uptick. The dental industry experienced an amplified version of these national employment trends, with half of all dental workers losing their jobs in March and April, and 94% of dentist offices rehiring their full staff by mid-August.

Getting dentists back into the office

Stimulus programs may be a key factor in helping dentists to weather this storm. Practices that took part in the federal Paycheck Protection Program were more likely to remain open than those that didn’t.

Even after job gains since June, the dental industry still has 289,000 fewer workers than it did before the pandemic. That suggests to Betsey Stevenson, a University of Michigan economics professor quoted in the Times article, that the industry — and the rest of the American economy — is far from recovered.

What does the future look like?

Though dentist offices have been open for several months, it’s unclear whether their patient bases will return. In mid-June, most states gave dentist offices the go-ahead to reopen fully, but in August patient volumes were still lower than what they were before the pandemic. The rate at which patients were returning has even tapered off as of mid-August and some economists don’t predict patient volumes to return fully before the end of 2020.

This hesitation is a sign of multiple problems facing patients during the pandemic. Some patients may feel cautious about removing their masks for a close-up procedure. Others may think that since they haven’t noticed any dental issues since the pandemic started, they can go a little longer without getting a dental cleaning. Some people can simply no longer afford dental procedures after losing their jobs and their insurance benefits through their employers. Economists who spoke to the Times predict that employment rates for dentists will eventually return to where they were before the virus hit, even though it may be slow going.