U.S. kids' preventive dental care slipped during pandemic

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Fewer children had dental exams or cleanings in 2020 than in the prior year, according to results released on December 3 from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) 2019-2020 National Health Interview Survey.

From 2019 to 2020, the percentage of children ages 17 and younger who had a dental examination or cleaning in the past 12 months decreased from 83.8% to 80.9%. Though some of the falloff in preventive dental care can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, it's clearly not the only factor, as changes in utilization occurred prior to the start of the pandemic.

Unsurprisingly, the data fall in line with preventive dental care statistics for adults. In November, the CDC estimated that 65.1% of adults had a dental exam or cleaning during the first half of 2019. By the second half of 2020, that percentage fell to 62%.

Declines in care by age

The greatest decrease was seen in children between the ages of 1 and 4, with 58.6% having had a dental exam or cleaning in 2019 and 51.3% in 2020, according to the survey.

The drop was smaller but still significant in children between the ages of 12 and 17. In 2019, 90.3% of children in that age range had a dental exam or cleaning, but the number fell to 88.1% in 2020.

For children ages 5 through 11, the percentage who had an exam or cleaning dropped from 92% in 2019 to 90.6% in 2020, but the change was not significant.

Declines in care by geography

Dental utilization also varied by geography. In 2019, the percentage of children receiving a dental examination or cleaning was highest in the Northeast, which includes Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In 2020, the percentage of children receiving cleanings or exams was highest in the West, which includes Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, and Hawaii.

However, the percentage of children who had an exam or a cleaning decreased across all regions in the U.S. between 2019 and 2020. Some areas saw sharper declines than others. Visits decreased nearly 6 percentage points, from 85.8% in 2019 to 79.9% in 2020, in the Northeast.

In the South, visits decreased approximately 3 percentage points, from 82.8% in 2019 to 79.4% in 2020. This region includes Delaware, Maryland, the District of Columbia, Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas, according to the CDC.

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