Three months before Bridge Chiropractic in Salmon Creek exposed more than 300 people to coronavirus, complaints started to trickle in to the state Department of Health.
The first complaint came on June 19 from Vancouver resident Maya Heim, who was concerned when she visited the office for a massage and saw only one out of more than six employees wearing a mask, according to Heim’s complaint.
At that time, the department opted for “technical assistance” and education instead of an investigation or discipline for Bridge Chiropractic, which, according to its website, is part of Chiro One Wellness Centers, a company based in Illinois — Bridge and Chiro One representatives have not responded to requests for comment.
Two more complaints followed in July, which prompted an investigation by Washington’s Chiropractic Quality Assurance Commission. Another complaint was filed in late August, the fourth and last complaint before Clark County Public Health announced that a Bridge employee infected with coronavirus had exposed 300 patients and 14 colleagues to the virus over the course of four days last week (Sept. 8 to 11).
In a Wednesday press briefing, Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said mask-wearing was “inconsistent” by patients and staff during the exposure period. Public health authorities have repeatedly recommended people wear masks when in proximity to people outside their household to prevent disease transmission.
State Department of Health spokeswoman Kristen Maki said in an email that the Department of Health decided Thursday to expand the investigation into Bridge because of the massive exposure.
In a phone interview Thursday morning, Heim said she filed her complaint with the state Department of Health on June 19.
That was the same day Heim visited the chiropractor’s office for the first time to get a massage. In Heim’s complaint to the Department of Health, a copy of which she provided to The Columbian, Heim she said she wasn’t asked any COVID-19 screening questions upon arrival at the chiropractor’s office.
She also noticed that most staff were not wearing masks.
Heim said she saw a sign in the clinic that day that said face coverings were optional for staff, and that patients should ask staff to wear a mask if that was their preference.
The employee who gave Heim a massage that day was the only staff member Heim saw wearing a mask, she said in the phone interview. She said other staff were wearing masks around their necks.
“It was like an alternate universe,” Heim said.
Heim brought up concerns about mask-wearing with one employee, she said, and that employee told her privately that they had voiced those same concerns to management, but that management declined to enforce mask-wearing.
An “employee privately complained to me … about a lack of protective measures after I mentioned surprise at the total absence of basic precautions at a medical facility,” Heim’s complaint reads.
When Gov. Jay Inslee allowed non-urgent medical procedures to resume in May in Washington, the governor mandated medical facilities such as Bridge have enough personal protective equipment on hand for staff to use.
Inslee’s proclamation also states that “visitors who are able should wear a mask or other appropriate face covering at all times while in the health care facility as part of universal source control.”
In early June, before Heim’s complaint, Inslee required all employees in Washington to wear face-coverings. In late June, face-coverings became mandatory in indoor public spaces for everyone.
On July 8, the Department of Health responded to her complaint in an email.
“The report was closed without an investigation or disciplinary action as we first provided technical assistance to the provider, reminding them of their obligations to comply with Governor-issued proclamations,” the email reads.
Maki said the Department of Health declined to investigate at that time because it was the first COVID-19 complaint the department had received about Bridge. Maki said the department is trying to offer education around compliance before taking further action.
“We have found that most business noncompliance is unintentional; the technical assistance helps educate the business to come into compliance,” Maki said in an email. “If the department receives subsequent complaints, or the business communicates intentional noncompliance, it will elevate the complaint as appropriate.”
Heim said her main concern at that time was the safety of staff. She was also worried that clients would be afraid to ask staff to wear masks.
Heim empathizes with the Department of Health and local business when it comes to mask enforcement. She understands the nuances at play, she said, but was disappointed that a medical facility, which operates with close contact and touching, was not following statewide rules.
“I understand that the state doesn’t want to make a habit of aggressively citing businesses who need time to understand their compliance,” Heim said. “I don’t think that is the case with this business.”