Benefits administrator blog from Delta Dental

Tag: COVID-19 (Page 2 of 3)

Kids’ unmet oral health needs highlighted by the pandemic

When your employees become parents, they receive an onslaught of information about their child’s growth markers and health checkups from immunizations to well-child visits. When it comes to dental care, however, less than half of parents receive professional advice on when to start taking their child to the dentist.

And lack of guidance is only the beginning of the problem. Access to dental care has been an ongoing challenge for U.S. children, but during the pandemic, dental care emerged as children’s greatest unmet health need, according to a recent study published in JADA.

What does this mean for your employees and their children, and what can you do to support them?

The pandemic’s effect on pediatric oral health

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, dental disease among children was rampant:

The pandemic made these problems worse by stressing the financial systems that delivers dental care with income and job losses. Households were three times more likely to identify dental care as an unmet health need as a result of the pandemic compared to medical care, according to a JADA study. The authors found a significant association between the probability of unmet child dental care and pandemic-related household income or job loss.

About 40% of families reported the loss of a job or decrease in income due to the pandemic. Before the pandemic, children from families with lower income or who were on Medicaid were twice as likely to have cavities than children from higher-income households. Whether due to lost or decreased income, fear of contracting COVID-19 and mixed communication from health organizations, dental care visits dropped in 2020.

Many people were able to stay covered for medical procedures due to robust signups for Medicare and Medicaid pandemic. But cost remains the major barrier to receiving dental care, since Medicare and Medicaid packages rarely cover many dental procedures. Although access to pediatric dental care has grown for families with public insurance since the early 2000s, kids in low-income families are still less likely to visit the dentist regularly. Additional barriers include difficulty finding a willing dentist, transportation and geographic proximity to dental providers.

Potential solutions for children’s unmet oral health needs

As a benefit administrator, you can invest time into communication efforts that may bridge knowledge gaps among your employees. Here are a couple of ways you can get started:

  • Talk about timelines. Inform your employees about recommended timelines for pediatric care to guarantee they get the information they need, whether or not their dentists communicate that information.
  • Design your package. When you’re designing your benefits package, cover important preventive services for kids, like sealants and fluoride treatments.
  • Highlight plan features. Encourage employees to take advantage of aspects of their insurance, like teledentistry coverage, that can make pediatric care easier. Did you know that 75% of pediatric dentists offer virtual services, compared to only a third of general dentists?
  • Share materials. Explore Delta Dental’s wellness resources and share a selection of helpful articles and flyers in an email or on an internal site. You can even highlight assets that are made for kids, like MySmileKids and Grin! for Kids.
  • Be consistent. When communicating helpful information to your employees, using multiple channels can be confusing and difficult to keep track of. Find a simple routine for sharing, like posting information on an internal webpage with monthly or quarterly email notifications, so that your employees always know where to look.

How Delta Dental invests in communities

To help dentists make investments in their communities, the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation awards several million dollars in grants each year to increase access to care. These awards enable underserved individuals, including children, to get preventive and restorative treatments in accessible locations. More than 250 organizations received funding from the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation during the COVID-19 pandemic, totaling $11 million to provide relief. Many of these clinics support and serve children.

These Access to Care grants fund activities designed to remove barriers to seeking care such as distance, cost, and even fear. The grants can be used to set up mobile or pop-up clinics in a local community, provide dental care in underserved clinical settings, fund outreach programs or offset costs for clinics that routinely provide care to underserved populations.

What comes next

There will probably be some relief for underserved communities, including children, soon. The U.S. economy seems to be recovering. The national unemployment rate is projected to fall to 5.3% by the end of the year.

But the problems highlighted by the pandemic shouldn’t be ignored. As a benefits administrator, you can’t be expected to fix all of the problems in the American economy or health care industry. Still, by highlighting resources and keeping your employees informed, you can positively affect the employees you work with and their children.

How the stress of the pandemic could be affecting your employees’ dental health

For many, 2020 ushered in feelings of isolation and fear, as well as new concerns about financial stability, safety, family and how to juggle all of it from home. For some dentists, the stress of the situation has become apparent in their patients’ oral health. Chances are, it could be affecting your employees, as well.

As of March, over 70% of dentists surveyed by the American Dental Association (ADA) Healthy Policy Institute reported an increase in patients experiencing teeth grinding and clenching since before the pandemic. That number is up nearly 10% from fall of 2020. In fact, more than 80% of Americans have reported emotions associated with prolonged stress, according to a January study by the American Psychological Association (APA).

“Generally, manifestations of stress go away when the stressing event goes away. That’s where the pandemic comes in,” said Dr. Daniel Croley, DMD, chief dental officer for Delta Dental. “One of the ways that some people manifest stress is by clenching and grinding their teeth.”

But dental conditions related to stress go beyond just teeth grinding.

Stress-related conditions

Multiple studies have shown that emotions can play a significant role in periodontal (gum) disease. Thanks to an increase in inflammation from stress-induced conditions, the gums can become a hotbed for bacteria, leading to gingivitis. According to the ADA, dentists reported recent upticks in all of the following conditions:

  • Bruxism (teeth grinding)
  • Chipped teeth
  • Cracked teeth
  • Temporomandibular joint disorder (TMJ) symptoms
  • Cavities
  • Gum disease
  • Dry mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Mouth sores

Delta Dental claim data also suggests a rise in stress-related conditions. Bite guards, commonly associated with treatment for bruxism and TMJ, were prescribed 14.3% more by Delta Dental dentists in the second half of 2020 than during that same period in 2019.

Sleep and ergonomics

During the mad rush to convert homes to offices in the early days of the pandemic, couches and stools took the place of lumbar-supported work chairs. Ergonomic workspaces became less of a priority than merely having a functioning workspace and the resulting poor posture may also be to blame for some TMJ issues. Whether your staff is at home or back in the office, it may be time to brush up on proper ergonomics for their workstation.

Likewise, stress and disrupted routines likely hurt the chances at restorative sleep, increasing nighttime teeth grinding. Insomnia and restlessness can result in bruxism and TMJ. Restful off-hours are critical for productive workdays, so consider sharing resources for mindfulness and healthy nighttime routines with your team.

Mask mouth

On top of these stress-induced issues is yet another pandemic problem: mask mouth. The facemask has been a staple of pandemic life and has greatly contributed to the slowing of the virus but can come with unfortunate byproducts: bad breath, dry mouth and even gingivitis and tooth decay.

Dental professionals attribute mask mouth to dehydration and mouth breathing when wearing a face covering. Though the ADA found no substantial rise in these specific indicators, the symptoms are easy to prevent by brushing thoroughly and drinking enough water. If your staff wears masks throughout their workday, it may be helpful to lay out guidelines for when they can remove them to stay hydrated.

Other reasons for the spike

It is important to note that not all of these conditions are caused solely by anxiety and tension. For instance, a broken tooth could come as the result of anxiety-induced teeth-grinding, but it could also be caused by an accident or prolonged dental problems. Unfortunately, most claim data does not include the cause behind the diagnosis. Without that, it is impossible to say with absolute certainty that stress is the sole reason for a spike in numbers.

“It’s logical to conclude that current stress is leading to those broken and chipped teeth,” Dr. Croley said. “We will monitor and see. As we see broader distribution of the COVID vaccine and our daily lives feel more typical of what we experienced pre-pandemic, we will see our stress subside and as a result the need for bite guards to treat grinding and clenching subside — but our bodies can take some time to re-acclimate. Going back to the typical is still a change from what has been our weird ‘normal’ over the past year and any change can generate stress.”

Educate your employees about how mental health can affect their oral health when signs of stress are detected. Sharing resources on recognizing and managing stress is a great way of letting your staff know that you’re empathetic to their situation and care about their health.

Employer considerations for COVID-19 vaccines

The speed and efficacy with which COVID-19 vaccines have been developed is a testament to human ingenuity and the drive to create a safer world for us all. The three vaccines that are widely available in the U.S. (Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson) have all received emergency authorization by the FDA after demonstrating both efficacy and safety, but there are still some points you may want to consider when deciding on how your company should approach a vaccine policy.

What are my options as an employer?

There are three main courses of action you could take when it comes to employees and vaccines:

  • Do nothing. This means choosing not to implement a company-wide vaccine policy and not advocating for and encouraging vaccinations. Doing nothing may not be the optimal choice from a public health perspective, but it’s certainly a valid one from a legal standpoint. Mandating or incentivizing vaccination could help to reduce increased costs or absenteeism from employees, but it can also expose your company to legal liability depending on how such policies are implemented (and how litigious employees are).
  • Encourage and incentivize vaccination. This is a gentler approach than outright mandating vaccinations as a condition of continued employment. Encouraging employees to get vaccinated is legally safe, although it may run the risk of upsetting employees who don’t believe in vaccination, who have concerns about vaccine safety, who have health considerations that keep them from getting vaccinated or who simply don’t like feeling pressured when it comes to managing their health. Incentives, such as offering paid time off or a bonus to employees who get vaccinated, must be carefully implemented, however. Aside from the cost considerations that comes with bonuses and incentives, you may find yourself legally liable for any issues that arise if you implement on-site vaccinations.
  • Mandate vaccination. This is an aggressive option, but it’s certainly the most effective from the point of prioritizing the health and safety of employees. Mandating that employees get vaccinated is generally legal (although it may not be in some states), but it’s possible that some implementations of such a policy could put you at legal risk (for example, setting up on-site vaccinations or inquiring about employees’ personal health to determine their eligibility for vaccination).

Which employees should get vaccinated first?

Until vaccines become more widely available, it’s best to prioritize employees who are most vulnerable to exposure and at greatest risk of complications from COVID-19. Of course, in health care and senior care industries, everyone with regular contact with the ill and elderly should be vaccinated. Outside of these industries, consider prioritizing:

  • Employees who work in close physical contact
  • Employees who have regular exposure to customers and other members of the public
  • Employees who have regular exposure to heavily trafficked enclosed spaces, food products or other settings where infection may be a risk
  • Employees who are 65 or older
  • Employees who are 16–65 with underlying medical conditions that increase the risk of life-threatening COVID-19 complications

What are the risks of implementing a vaccine policy?

You could get into legal trouble if pre-screening vaccination questions aren’t job-related and consistent with the requirements of your business. To avoid this outcome, make sure that any pre-screening questions are related to the job and that you can prove that unvaccinated employees pose a direct threat to the health and safety of other employees. Similarly, you could get into legal trouble if you attempt to prevent workers’ concerted activity, such as expressing opposition to mandatory vaccines.

Make sure to follow state and local laws, as well. Some locales may have prohibitions against mandating vaccines that aren’t required by state or federal law.

Setting a policy and moving forward

Before settling on the policy that’s best for your company and your employees, there are a few final things to consider.

  • Make sure you follow all federal, state and local laws. You don’t want to put your organization at risk of legal exposure. Do some research to make sure you stay up-to-date on the latest laws and regulations.
  • Get a sense of how employees feel. If you have employees who feel very strongly about vaccines, either adopting a mandatory policy or doing nothing may cause disquiet. Taking surveys of employee sentiments can be a good way to decide how to craft your message.
  • Identify who should be doing the communication. Figures like respected managers, team leaders and union officials can be excellent ambassadors for your company’s policies, especially in larger organizations where employees may not have personal relationships with upper management.
  • Be transparent. As always, communication is key when it comes to rolling out new policies that can affect employees’ work lives. Let employees know both what your COVID-19 vaccine policy is and how that position was reached. Be sure to listen to and address employee concerns, even if your policy remains firm.

Regardless of what policy you decide to implement, wearing masks and respecting social distancing will stay important aspects of infection management. Even as vaccines become more readily available, maintain practices and procedures to minimize the chance of infection and help your entire organization stay healthy.

How COVID-19 is changing benefits in 2021

The global pandemic has had a profound impact on the way corporations attract, develop and maintain their human capital, and this includes changes to benefits packages. A June 2020 survey by Mercer found that some of the most common benefits changes that companies were considering in response to the pandemic included:

  • Expanding virtual health and telemedicine programs
  • Enhancing mental health support (including employee assistance programs)
  • Adding or expanding voluntary benefits

Have those predictions panned out? The International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans (IFEBP) conducted a survey of U.S. employers to determine how the way businesses think about offering benefits has changed because of COVID-19. This study has found a move towards telemedicine, mental health benefits, flexibility around leave and greater consideration given to cost-saving measures. 

Fewer in-office visits means more telemedicine coverage

From visiting the dentist to an unexpected trip to the emergency room, in-office visits of all kinds are down from 2019 rates. That doesn’t mean that people are necessarily receiving less care, though. According to the IFEBP survey, nearly nine out of 10 employers reported seeing an increase in the number of telehealth claims filed in 2020. Dental offices are safe to visit, but for employees who are trying to socially distance (or simply have difficulty fitting a trip to the dentist into their schedule), Delta Dental offers multiple virtual dentistry solutions.

Stress and isolation lead to a greater emphasis on mental health benefits

Mental health claims saw a sharp rise in 2020. As employees cope with the stress and isolation that living with the realities of COVID-19 can cause, adding or enhancing access to mental health care is a cost-saving move. The effects of stress, depression and anxiety may not be as visible as with other issues, but they are no less real. They can lead to missed work and physical health issues, and so they’re equally important to cover with mental health benefits or employee assistance programs that offer support to employees.

More flexibility in leave is required as life throws curveballs at everyone

It’s important to be compassionate and flexible when it comes to your employees’ physical and emotional needs. Parents and other caregivers have been hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic and may need additional support as they try to juggle their work and home lives. Emergency leave for child or elder care, flexible use of paid and unpaid leave and offering carryover options for workers who can’t use their current vacation days are becoming more common.

Voluntary plans are becoming more popular to help keep costs low

Finally, consider that it may be in your organization’s best interests to change the kind of benefits offered. Voluntary plans are a great way to ensure that those who want dental coverage can keep it, even if cost-saving measures become necessary. The Smile On program is also available to provide dental coverage to those who are transitioning out of the workforce.

Communication is key

No matter how your benefits may change in response to the pandemic, being transparent and honest with your employees is essential. By alerting employees to benefits changes, you can ensure that they won’t be caught by an unpleasant surprise. Additionally, letting your employees know when new benefits are available and how to make the most of them can help keep them happier and healthier.

Remote work and employers: what are the pros and cons?

In 2020, we all learned just how fast the world could adapt to new measures. In the workforce, this has meant relying on coworkers and employees to bring their work home without missing a beat. With a year passed since COVID-19 changed the world, it’s time to reflect on the first year as full-time remote employers, what has been learned from it, and how to continue to adapt moving forward.

Here’s a closer look at the pros and cons of remote working:

Pros

Flexibility

Working from home is far from a new concept. In fact, it’s often touted as a job perk by hiring managers. For employees, it often comes down to flexibility. Working remotely can be an opportunity schedule quick errands, focus in a less distracting environment or even to enjoy more time with the pets while still accomplishing the tasks at hand. The freedoms of remote work can be a major morale-booster. A study by PwC recently found that 55% of would like still to keep working from home at least three days a week once it’s safe to return to the office.

Lack of commute

Who wouldn’t choose walking to their living room over an hour commute on an over-stuffed train? Eliminating this often stressful part of the day saves time, money and headaches. It also takes more cars off the road, meaning less air pollution. In November, NASA announced that global nitrogen dioxide concentrations had been reduced by nearly 20% since February of 2020.

Larger pool of candidates

Eliminating a tough commute can also mean a more competitive job market. When people can work from anywhere, it widens the pool of potential candidates. For permanently remote jobs where location isn’t a requirement, employers can reap the benefits with a larger number of viable applicants.

Saved money

Less people in an office means a smaller office space, fewer everyday office expenses like supplies and cleanup, and less utilities at work. These kinds of savings aren’t just beneficial during uncertain times — they can be lucrative to new businesses trying to grow.

Cons

Blurred work/life balance

One of the more complicated issues to arise from remote working has been the stress of balancing a regular workday with our rapidly changing world. When the physical barrier of an office is removed, the lines between professional and personal lives can get a bit fuzzy. While flexible work hours may be a pro, they can become a slippery slope of overtime and burnout if left unchecked. In fact a recent Gallup poll showed that 29% of people who always work from home feel burnt out “very often” or “always.”

Encourage your staff to set up a corner of their home just for work if they can and to stay online for office hours only. Check in regularly to make sure that they feel heard and supported in their work endeavors.

Internet complications

We’ve all heard the horror stories: Someone forgot to mute themselves in a meeting or couldn’t figure out how to turn a Zoom filter off. In 2020, the learning curve got a bit steeper as our toolboxes grew along with our reliance on technology.

A little bit of training and empathy can go a long way in these cases. As expectations change, offer learning guides, webinars and other resources to help employees with the learning process. Additionally, understand that complications can occasionally arise when employees are at the mercy of Wi-Fi, laptops, and other far-from-perfect technologies.

Less organic opportunities for connection

With no watercooler to gather around, those little day-to-day opportunities for staff to connect can be tougher to find. Don’t let it wedge a gap between the team.

Schedule a little time for virtual team-building opportunities, be it a lunch meet-up or a Friday game hour. Take this time to focus on company values and consider how you can foster trust and communication.

As the world continues to change, take some time to reflect on how much you and your team have already adapted and give yourself credit where it’s due. Creating a culture of openness and empathy will help address issues as they arise and keep you connected to your team.

Common questions employees may have about the COVID-19 vaccine

As the COVID-19 vaccine is becoming more accessible throughout the country, you may find that employees are talking about it and asking questions. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of conflicting and inaccurate information being spread through various media channels. Staying on top of the truth can be a full-time job, but here’s a list of common questions and some points you can bring up in case you hear concerns about the vaccine.

Is the vaccine safe?

Yes. Multiple expert sources, such as the Mayo Clinic and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have attested to the vaccines’ safety. There are multiple reasons given why someone might be concerned about the vaccine’s safety, but the most common include:

  • Concerns about catching COVID-19 from a vaccine shot. There is no live virus used in the vaccines, so people who receive them can’t contract COVID-19.
  • Concerns about the vaccine damaging cells’ DNA. mRNA vaccines don’t alter cell DNA. Instead, they teach cells how to make a protein, which generates a response that will help the immune system target identical proteins in the COVID-19 coronavirus.
  • Concerns about the vaccines being developed recklessly or too quickly. The vaccines have been tested on tens of thousands of patients. Pfizer and Moderna have published ingredient lists for their vaccines, and the mRNA technology used to make the vaccines has been in development for over 30 years.

I’ve heard reports of people having aches, chills and other symptoms after getting vaccinated. Is this an issue?

No. Some people who have gotten the vaccine have reported muscle pain, chills and headaches, but that is not unusual for vaccines. These are part of the body’s normal immune response. But those who have had allergic reactions to vaccines in the past (which are due to the ingredients used in the vaccines), should first consult with their health care providers before receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.

Should I still get a vaccine if I’ve had COVID-19 previously?

Yes. It’s not clear if having contracted COVID-19 previously grants long-term resistance and immunity, like having contracted chicken pox does. Even for those who have been infected previously, the CDC still recommends getting vaccinated.

COVID-19 doesn’t seem that deadly. Should I get a vaccine if I’m not in a high-risk category?

Yes. It’s true that as a percentage, most people who contract COVID-19 don’t die from it. Still, there can be serious long-term consequences such as lung, heart or brain damage. And even someone who doesn’t get seriously ill can still spread the disease among others who are more vulnerable. Getting a vaccine helps us protect not just our families and loved ones, but also society as a whole.

Once I’ve been vaccinated, do I still need to wear a mask or socially distance?

Yes. Even if a person has been vaccinated, that doesn’t mean that he or she can’t still spread the virus. It takes at least 10 days for the body to develop antibodies to the virus, and the number of antibodies present only goes up with more time. Additionally, research hasn’t conclusively determined if the vaccines prevent asymptomatic infection and spread (although it is likely that they do). Wearing a mask and socially distancing are also good behaviors to model for those who haven’t been vaccinated yet. By getting vaccinated and following other preventive measures, we can all do our part to end the pandemic sooner!

I’ve heard that the vaccine contains a chip inside that lets the government and corporations track people who get vaccinated. Is this true?

No. Some syringe makers include a microchip within the labels of their products so that health care providers can track the shipping history and origin of doses of vaccine. There is no chip within the vaccine itself.

I heard that the vaccine targets a protein that occurs naturally in pregnant women and can cause fertility issues. Is this true?

No. An amino acid sequence is shared between COVID-19 and a placental protein found in pregnant women, but the sequence is too short to trigger an immune response by itself. COVID-19 vaccines won’t cause fertility issues in women.

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