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Sonoma County Schools kindergarten dental-health assessment pilot

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Sonoma County Schools kindergarten dental-health assessment pilot

Kaiser-funded initiative to gather data on childhood dental needs, test school-based treatment strategies

A trip to the dentist is as easy as A, B, C at three Santa Rosa City Schools elementary schools serving as test sites for simplifying state-mandated oral health screenings of kindergartners and for school-based delivery of dental care.

From noon to 2 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 17, volunteer dentists and dental hygienists will perform dental screenings and apply fluoride varnish treatments on kindergartners at Brook Hill Elementary, 1850 Vallejo Street, Santa Rosa. The project began last week at Steele Lane Elementary on February 10 and continues with a last round of screenings and treatments Feb. 24 at Luther Burbank Elementary.

Data from the screenings are being collected to further document the extent of childhood dental disease in the county, and to inform strategies and prioritize efforts to improve dental health. Through the pilot project, parents and guardians of children in need of further treatment will receive referrals to dental providers for that additional care.

“Dental health is so important to a healthy start in life,” said Guadalupe Perez-Cook, principal at Brook Hill Elementary. “Hopefully, we can make projects like this a model for expanding access to dental care and improving local families’ knowledge about dental health.”

In 2005, the California Legislature passed legislation mandating that children enrolled in kindergarten in a public school, or in first grade if not previously enrolled in kindergarten, present proof of having received an oral health assessment from a dentist or dental health professional. Intended to nip dental disease early on and put young children and families on course to oral health, the mandate floundered without the state funding to put into practice. 

Now, says Barbie Robinson, Department of Health Services Director, a $20,000 mini grant from Kaiser Permanente is allowing those screenings to take place this spring at the three Santa Rosa City Schools elementary schools—with a big assist from several local volunteer dentists and dental health professionals.

“The pilot project will provide a more concentrated look at dental health among children of recent immigrants and from low-income backgrounds,” Robinson stated. In 2009 and 2014, countywide surveys of kindergartners found that nearly half of Sonoma County kindergartens were starting school with cavities —and that 20 percent of those cavities were untreated. Latino children and children in low-income schools had two to three times higher rates of dental disease.

Meanwhile, the project provides a trial run on a small scale of what it might take to make kindergarten oral health assessments readily available county-wide. And, last but not least, fluoride varnish recipients are receiving some added and lasting protection against new tooth decay.

“The varnish will be brushed away the next time the child brushes, but the benefits will last several months,” DHS Health, Policy and Planning Evaluation Division Director Brian Vaughn said. “It is recommended that fluoride varnish be reapplied every three to four months.”

Application of fluoride varnish is part of a five-point strategy that has been developed by public health officials and a broader community based Sonoma County Dental Health Network for improving oral health.

In addition to more extensive use of fluoride varnish, the strategy calls for expanding access to dental care, improved dental-health literacy through education, wider use of protective dental sealants and consideration of community water fluoridation.

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