Two initiatives announced last week by the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation and the Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation aim to improve the oral health of children in communities disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, poverty and other social determinants of health.

The first initiative, a health equity and COVID-19 capacity renewal grant program, awarded a total of $7.3 million to healthcare organizations statewide, including to the Erie Family Health Foundation, whose clinics provide oral health care to underserved children on the West Side.

The second initiative, H2O on the Go, will bring water bottle-filling stations to 55 Illinois schools, including Nash Elementary School and Spencer Technology Academy in Austin.

“Not having good oral health care can impede the quality of life for a child,” said Bob Egan, senior program officer at the Illinois Children’s Healthcare Foundation.

“If a child’s mouth is in pain, it’s not just a dental issue, it affects every aspect of their life.”

According to a study by the American Public Health Association, experiencing oral health issues can negatively impact a child’s school attendance and performance.

Erie Family Health received a $200,000 grant to build capacity at its Humboldt Park clinic. The health center provides the full range of preventive and treatment dental services; about 1,300 of Erie’s pediatric oral health patients come from Zip codes in the Austin area.

“A lot of people just don’t have access to care and really only use dental clinics and even emergency rooms for emergency dental care, instead of getting preventative care or less invasive treatments at the dental clinic,” said Dr. Lisa Kearney, clinical director of oral health at Erie.

Emergency rooms can be expensive, and since they usually don’t have a dentist, people are often sent home with an antibiotic and pain medication — temporarily alleviating but not fully addressing their dental issue, Kearney said.

Drinking fluorinated water is one way to prevent issues. The H2O on the Go program, the second announced initiative, aims to provide greater access to optimally fluorinated water.

“The consumption of sugary beverages is a major contributing factor of tooth decay,” Egan said.

“The idea is to be able to provide touchless filling stations to fill bottles and encourage children to drink more water … If we can get children to drink more water as opposed to drinking sugary beverages, it also might impact obesity rates in the state as well as it’s just a healthier alternative.”

Along with having existing water fountains replaced with new water bottle filling stations, students at Nash Elementary and Spencer Technology will also receive toothbrushes and reusable water bottles provided by the Delta Dental of Illinois Foundation.