California dentists may be asked to administer coronavirus vaccines

California dental patients may one day be asked to not only open wide but roll up their sleeve for an immunization. 

A handful of states already allow dentists to administer vaccines, and the trend is accelerating during the pandemic.

"It makes sense because we give injections all day long for anesthesia, so we're well-trained and well-versed," said Dr. Natasha Lee, president of the San Francisco Dental Society.

Lee has been practicing for 20 years and is past president of the California Dental Association.

"Plus as dentists, we're all about prevention and community service, so it's another opportunity to take our skills where they are needed." 

Dentist surveys show strong support for the idea.

"We have a good number of dentists who say it's what we all need to do to put COVID behind us," said Lee.

Monday, the CDA welcomed an emergency public health waiver from the California Dept. of Consumer Affairs, officially allowing dentists to administer the COVID vaccine.

With counties distributing at different speeds, barely a third of available vaccine has been administered in California.

Most of it remains in storage.

Dentists hope to help pick up that pace.

"We have 36,000 licensed dentists in the state so we have quite an army that could help with that bottleneck," said Lee. 

Many dental practices are very busy, with pent-up demand now that about 70 percent of patients have resumed routine care.

Procedures are different: advance screening and social distancing, stepped-up air filtration and oral suction, and staff layered in PPE.

But even working near patients' mouths and exhalations, dentistry has been virtually infection-free. 

"In California, there are no reports of clinical transmission of COVID in dental offices," said Lee, " and dental has always been the gold standard when it comes to infection control." 

Now many dentists will take their skills to vaccination clinics held by public health departments and dental schools.

They will wield the needle against COVID instead of cavities.

And some might make immunization part of their private practice.

"In the future, we can imagine if this becomes a normal part of dentistry, a patient who comes for their annual check-up and cleaning may also get their annual flu shot," said Lee.    

As for the injection itself, after jockeying around tongues and gag reflex, poking a shoulder muscle will seem easy.  

"In the mouth, we're aiming for certain nerves, looking for certain landmarks, so it's definitely more challenging in the mouth than the deltoid," smiled Lee. 

Dentists will be required to take several hours of COVID-specific training required by the CDC.

But the more immediate hurdle: they need to be vaccinated themselves.

Dentists are in Phase 1A, but Tier 3, so still waiting along with so many other groups.

To speed new vaccines into communities, Gov. Gavin Newsom not only wants dentists giving shots but pharmacy technicians and members of the National Guard as well.

Debora Villalon is a reporter for KTVU.  Email Debora at and follow her on Twitter@DeboraKTVU