Illustration of Ramneek Rai
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

When the pandemic struck, Ramneek Rai was just two years into her role as director of health and safety for the School of Dentistry. In mid-March 2020, the UCSF Dental Center – which normally handles some 120,000 patient visits a year – had to suspend all but emergency services. 

As news spread about the novel coronavirus’s airborne transmission, “the anxiety was palpable among our staff, residents, students, and faculty,” she says. “We were at high risk of exposure.” Yet despite her colleagues’ anxiety, Rai says, they were eager to return to campus to provide care.

It fell to Rai to help put safety measures in place so the Dental Center could reopen, not only to serve patients but also so dental students could complete their training requirements and graduate on time.

For the first few months, Rai had many sleepless nights. She felt that the safety of everyone who stepped through the School of Dentistry doors was her responsibility. “This is what my role is meant for,” she says. “There was only one way forward: Step up to the challenge and do what needed to be done.”

Dean Michael Reddy’s leadership was key to uniting the stakeholders. Rai collaborated closely with UCSF Health experts and her dentistry faculty colleagues to craft and implement myriad safety protocols. They ran the gamut from ensuring adequate ventilation in all the clinics to developing triage strategies. One of the most critical measures was providing PPE designed to protect dental workers against aerosols, including N95 respirators and face shields – even through times of limited supply.

Screening patients for COVID also topped the list of safeguards. The school established its own testing site, where patients are tested for COVID prior to any aerosol-generating procedures. Rai reviews all the results and informs patients who tests positive. “Delivering this news is never easy,” she says. “I just have to support them as a human being and give them the best path forward.”

Now that patients and providers alike feel comfortable returning to the clinic, “I’m cautiously optimistic the bulk of the hard work related to COVID is behind us,” Rai says. “Everyone at the school was vested in coming back to provide care, safely. That’s what I’m really proud of.” 

– Mika Rivera for UCSF Magazine

Read the Summer 2021 Issue