HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — Gary Klein, a dentist, remembers how hiring a dental hygienist used to be.

“You had people who were qualified. They’d come in, and they were all fabulous,” Klein said. “And we had the pick of the litter.”

That was way back in the old days. You know, like 2019.

“Now I put an ad out, and I won’t get any response,” Klein said. Despite paying more hygienists than ever and offering new benefits, he said still has to pay a recruiter to compete for scarce hygienists.

The reason? Like so much else in the world: the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“During COVID, there was a lot of fear about aerosols. And in dentistry, spit is our life — you know, saliva is all around us,” Klein said. “A lot of hygienists during COVID either retired or changed jobs, and they haven’t come back.”

Klein recently expanded his physical office. There’s a new 3-D printer and four new patient rooms with all the latest equipment. The only problem?

“We don’t have hygienists to fill those rooms,” Klein said. He said he and the other dentist in his practice jump in and cover cleanings, but “it’s not what I really trained to do, obviously. I can certainly clean people’s teeth, but my time is better spent doing other other care.”

Janine Sivak, a hygienist in the office who also teaches aspiring hygienists, says the world for new graduates has changed dramatically since she graduated six years ago. Pay is something like $10 per hour more, to a national average of about $37 per hour. Still, Klein said nearly half of all dental practices have unfilled hygienist jobs.

The upshot? A new patient calling his office today can’t get an appointment until October or November, Klein said. Toughest of all, he said, is something that used to be no problem: finding a temporary hygienist, through staffing firms, to cover shifts when a hygienist like Sivak is on vacation or out sick.

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Signs are emerging that the worst of the hygienist shortage could soon pass.

“We have increased our annual enrollment from 25 students to 30 students per semester, or 60 students a year, to assist with the shortage of dental hygienists,” HACC told abc27 News in a statement attributed to Sarah Ostrander, the community college’s dental hygiene program director.

Sivak said in addition to better pay, the shortage has given hygienists an additional benefit: You know how people traditionally felt about going to the dentist?

“I feel people are a little more appreciative that we’re here and doing their cleanings for them,” she said.