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"Dr. Mark McIlwain"

For most dentists in Alabama, the COVID-19 shutdown during March and April meant slowing down and spending a lot more time at home. Unless, of course, you are Dr. Mark McIlwain.

McIlwain (’82) is a partnering oral surgeon at Oral and Facial Surgery of the Shoals in Sheffield and Florence, Alabama, President of the Board of Dental Examiners of Alabama (BDEA), team doctor for the Deshler High School Tigers, medical supervisor at the Helen Keller Hospital Surgery Pavilion, and most recently, the official supervisor for the Alabama Department of Public Health’s (ADPH) offsite COVID-19 Testing Center at Helen Keller Hospital in Tuscumbia.

“We became aware of the health risks of COVID-19 in February, and so fortunately, the BDEA began preparing for how the virus might impact dentistry and medicine early on” said McIlwain. “By the time March rolled around, we were already prepared to respond to the pandemic with increased safety measures.”

Soon after came mandates from the Office of the Governor of Alabama and the ADPH to stop all elective procedures in an effort to help keep patients out of hospitals and emergency rooms. During this time, the Alabama Dental Association (ALDA) turned to the BDEA for advice. The recommendations McIlwain and the BDEA made to ALDA eventually comprised about eighty percent of the ALDA’s earliest recommendations for dentistry best practices.

During the shutdown, McIlwain would begin his workday seeing emergency patients at his office. From there, he would drive to treat hospital patients, and then finally make his way out to the COVID Testing Center to see testing patients – all while juggling multiple phone calls, text messages, and emails with other members of the BDEA, ALDA, ADPH, the governor’s office, and constituent dentists around the state who reached out to him for help and advice during such a strange and difficult time. “I was easily pulling 12 to 14 hour days during this time, just trying to keep the train on the tracks!” he said.

These phone calls soon turned to conversations regarding the protocols and procedures needed for dentists to safely return full-time in May. Most were particularly concerned about the lack of availability of PPE, mitigating aerosol, and how to appropriately social distance staff and patients in an office with an open-concept floorplan. McIlwain personally helped dentists across the state modify their office environment to meet the new BDEA requirements. He predicts these new rules and procedures have permanently changed the way dental offices will be designed in the future. He foresees more individualized rooms for patient care, each equipped with its own exhaust system to mitigate aerosol and ultraviolet lights built into overhead ductwork to kill viruses.

The timing of the coronavirus shutdown in Alabama had UAB’s dental students nervous about how board examinations and licensing might be effected. But McIlwain and the BDEA were quick to modify testing to fit the current situation. The result was the implementation of clinical typodont manikin examinations that continued to fulfill the same licensing requirements the BDEA always demands. At the end of May, the BDEA approved to accept these manikin examinations for the next twelve months.

McIlwain is pleased to see that the protocol the BDEA put into place in the spring seems to be effective; to date, there have been no cases in Alabama in which the spread of COVID-19 can be traced to contact with a dentist or while visiting a dentist’s office. The BDEA continues to pinpoint and vet potentially weak areas of the protocol though, and will modify and improve it as needed.

Though the last four months have been stressful and challenging, McIlwain sees a silver lining. “You really and truly don’t communicate with people around the state as much as you should,” he shared. “I’ve talked with at least one person in every single one of the 67 counties in Alabama in the last four months. It has been fun renewing friendships and getting the chance to talk with others who are in the same boat. I’ve really enjoyed that aspect.”