Quick Take:

A new report showing that 30% of Santa Cruz County teens missed school in 2020 because of problems with their teeth — more than double the state average — has local health and nonprofit officials digging into why it’s a problem here and seeking solutions.

Santa Cruz County health officials say they plan to focus on teen dental health, sparked by concerns that visits to the dentist drop dramatically for youth as they transition to their teenage years.

Nearly 30% of Santa Cruz County teens missed school in 2020 because of problems with their teeth, more than double the state average, according to a report on the oral health of the county that was part of a presentation Tuesday by public health and elected officials and nonprofit Dientes Community Dental Care.

The report found that 28.5% of Santa Cruz County teens reported being absent from school because of dental issues, compared to 16.6% in Monterey County and 10.8% statewide. The data is from 2020 and based on the California Health Interview Survey, which reaches out to individuals who self-report.

While youth age 5 and under in Santa Cruz have the third-highest rate in the state for the number of visits to the dentist, the rates start to drop dramatically at around ages 9 and 10. The rates drop gradually from 68% at age 9 to just 20% for 19-year-olds.

County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah said he and other education and health officials are paying attention to the declining oral health of teens in the area and how it’s affecting school attendance.

“We’re seeing an increase in some medical conditions that are affecting the students’ ability to go to school — things like oral health issues,” he said, noting that high school-age students aren’t going to the dentist as often.

More than 42% of students in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District were chronically absent in 2022, compared with the state average of 30%. A student is chronically absent when they’ve missed 10% or more of instructional days.

Studies show that youth with poorer oral health are more likely to have dental pain and to perform poorly in school.

Dental hygienist Daniel Uriostegui at Dientes Community Dental in Live Oak.
Dental hygienist Daniel Uriostegui at Dientes Community Dental in Live Oak. Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

Dientes CEO Laura Marcus says the Santa Cruz-based nonprofit is just starting to look into the 10-to-19 age group to understand how to get more youth going to the dentist and improve their oral health.

“We’re looking toward examining this data, understanding the data, figuring out why this is and what we can do about it,” she said. “This is a brand-new goal.”

She said she’s not sure why the county’s rate reached that high and added that the data isn’t provided by school districts but is collected by the state’s health survey.

Assisting Dientes with reviewing data and coming up with new goals is the Oral Health Access Steering Committee, a group formed in 2016. The committee includes representatives from Dientes, the County of Santa Cruz, First 5 Santa Cruz County, Salud Para La Gente, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education and other local nonprofits and government agencies.

Marcus said the committee has been meeting quarterly and aims to develop a new strategic plan by the end of this year.

“One of the goals should be to focus more on youth and teens, and now the goal is to work with other service organizations that support those groups — youth and teens — about how we can influence and impact their oral health, through partnerships, through more access,” she said. “We’re just developing the strategy around this.”

Local oral health leaders say they are planning to add resources and outreach for youth between the ages of 10 to 19, along with older adults and people with diabetes. One of the first steps Dientes is taking is expanding its school outreach program from elementary schools to middle and high schools.

As one of only a handful of clinics in California solely dedicated to oral health, Dientes has been looking at how it can improve oral health for all segments of the population for the past 31 years. Its staff focuses on reducing barriers to accessing dental care including language barriers, income barriers and age.

About one-third of the 8,341 patients it served in 2020 were non-English speaking. Dientes serves insured and non-insured patients and currently has five clinics between Santa Cruz and Watsonville.

Dr. Jayanth Kumar, state dental director at the California Department of Public Health, said Dientes is a “huge success story” and emphasized that more counties should replicate the model to help serve those who face barriers to accessing dental care.

On Tuesday afternoon, elected officials and staff from the Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency and Dientes also shared data showing areas they’ve where they’ve seen improvements in oral health and areas they’ll be focusing on.

For example, between 2014 and 2019, dental care access increased 5% for children between the ages of 0 and 19, 84% for adults 20 to 64 and 33% for those 65 and older.

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After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...