The coronavirus pandemic is changing the way officials with the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences are approaching their new College of Dental Medicine in Joplin.

The most significant changes have come with a redesign of the planned building to better adapt it to COVID-19 safety precautions and procedures, said Dr. Linda Niessen, the college's founding dean. The College of Dental Medicine is to be built soon at KCU Joplin and is planned to open in fall 2022 with its first cohort.

Since the pandemic's arrival this spring in the U.S., Niessen and other KCU officials have asked the architect involved in the project to revise the design for compliance "with seeing patients in the new world of respiratory-transmitted aerosols," Niessen said.

"Dentistry has always been prepared to take care of patients who have bloodborne pathogens, but this is the first we've seen a respiratory pathogen as contagious as this," she said.

The school now will have a modified reception area, with seating spaced to allow for proper social distancing, Niessen said. Changes also were made to the school's filtration and ventilation systems to ensure adequate air flow throughout the building. All coolers and sinks will be hands-free, and barriers will be placed between working spaces, she said.

Niessen noted that although KCU officials have finalized the new design and applied for a building permit from the city of Joplin, no date for a groundbreaking ceremony for the new school has yet been set.

"It's certainly easier to (make the school safer for the pandemic) on the front end as opposed to retrofitting it," she said. "We have the luxury of designing a building that can care for patients, whether they have a bloodborne illness or a respiratory illness. ... The real determination for breaking ground is when it's going to be safe, where we can bring people together."

Other considerations

Even once the school opens in 2022, other COVID-19 precautions may still be in place, Niessen said.

Dental schools around the country closed this spring as a response to the pandemic, and many then shifted their instruction online. Those that have reopened this fall for in-person classes are limiting their class sizes in an effort to promote social distancing or are working on split schedules to allow only a certain number of students into a classroom or laboratory at one time, she said.

"Certainly, if we have to do that, we will do that," Niessen said.

In the meantime, the curriculum for the College of Dental Medicine has been designed, and the necessary accreditation documents have been prepared. Niessen also is launching searches for faculty and staff members.

The announcement that KCU would open a College of Dental Medicine was made last summer. It has involved a $40 million commitment from KCU and a $40 million local fundraising effort, which has reached 75% of its goal.

KCU said the college is planned in response to a shortage of dentists in the Four-State Area. Officials frequently note that all counties within a 125-mile radius of Joplin are designated as Dental Health Professional Shortage Areas by the Health Resources & Services Administration.

Niessen has embraced that mission since her hiring as the college's founding dean in March, noting that the school also will operate a fee-based clinic that will treat patients.

"Dental schools around the country are safety nets for dental care," she said. "Dental care keeps getting more and more expensive, and it makes it hard for families to access it, especially if they don't have dental insurance. We're there to improve access to dental care."

Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.