More than 135,000 Auckland children are overdue for a routine dental appointment - after the lockdown made delays worse. And dentists worry that means a lot more children could have serious dental problems by the time they are seen.
The Auckland Regional Dental Service has written to parents telling them it must prioritise children with higher need first, and that could further delay their routine check-ups.
But children's dentist and president of the NZ Dental Association, Kate Ayers said the check-ups, which should happen annually, were crucial.
Early decay could progress significantly in a year and become a serious problem, she said.
"You could move onto the next steps of having tooth ache, needing teeth removed, difficulty eating, difficulty sleeping, difficulty learning at school and so it is a bit of a compounding situation," she said.
The dental service said the delays were made worse because it was so heavily restricted on what it could do between levels 4 and 2 of the lockdown.
But the waiting times have been a problem for years.
Auckland woman Ellie saw firsthand how delays could escalate problems when her nine-year-old lost a filling in the lockdown, and his tooth started aching.
She understood the need for Covid-19 restrictions - especially at alert levels 3 and 4.
But even in level 1 the service was slow to respond to her requests for care for her son, and she had to chase them up after not hearing anything for a month, she said.
"[By then] every time he ate food, he was screaming and holding his jaw while the pain seared ... and then slowly settled down. Or if he bumped his mouth or his face it hurt as well," she said.
The dental service said it could not see the boy earlier because of Covid-19 restrictions, but had apologised that it was so slow to follow up with Ellie.
Dr Ayers said the delays were not unique to Auckland.
She worked in Hamilton and had recently treated a young girl who was an example of how serious problems could become if delayed.
"Her dental infection had got so bad the infection was draining out through her cheek. So, she'll now have a scar probably, on her cheek, for the rest of her life," she said.
Dr Ayers says the DHBs should consider funding for children go to private dentists from intermediate age, the way they did for high school children.
That would get them the care they need, and free up - and speed up, the DHB's dental service for children.