By Ben Stocking
The staff at Dr. Yousim Chhim’s White Center optometry clinic speak many languages but share a common mission: slowing the spread of COVID-19.
As they gradually begin scaling up their caseload, Dr. Chhim and her colleagues at the I Care Vision Center are taking every step they can to protect their clients, many of them immigrants and refugees from around the world.
The health and safety precautions they are taking are instructive for other businesses as they start to reopen under Washington’s “Safe Start” plan.
- The clinic staff wear face masks at all times.
- Frequent hand washing is mandatory. Bottles of sanitizer are stationed everywhere. Patients are greeted by a big bottle of hand sanitizer as they walk in the door.
- All equipment is disinfected before, during and after each patient visit.
- The front door is locked to control the number of people inside at any one time. They must knock or call before entering, and they are greeted with a “Please Wash Your Hands” sign as soon as they step inside.
“We give them a temperature check and ask them to wear a mask,” says Dr. Chhim. “If they don’t have a mask, we give them one. They’re welcome to wear their own, but if doesn’t fit properly, we ask them to cover it with one of ours.”
Most of her patients are happy to comply, but some ask: “Is this really necessary? Is this still a thing?”
“Yes,” she tells them. “It is.”
If patients complain, she explains: “We don’t want to wear a mask any more than you do. They’re uncomfortable. But we wear them to protect our staff, to protect our families, to protect you, and to protect your family.”
Dr. Chhim was born in a Thai refugee camp 40 years ago, after her parents fled the Cambodian genocide unleashed by Pol Pot, whose communist Khmer Rouge forces killed at least 1.5 million people. She moved to White Center when she was 3 years old.
After moving away for medical school, she returned to her multi-ethnic hometown to establish her practice.
“It was always my goal to come back and serve this community,” she says. “I wanted to make a difference for people who would appreciate it.”
For patients whose English is limited, the office staff has three languages covered. Dr. Chhim speaks Cambodian, the office technician speaks Vietnamese, and the office manager speaks Spanish. Patients who speak different languages often bring friends or family to translate for them. If nobody is available to help, Dr. Chhim sometimes resorts to gestures.
“I’m pretty good with hand motions,” she says. “I do my best to help.”
IF YOU’RE SICK, STAY HOME
When patients call to make an appointment, the staff asks whether they are feeling sick with COVID-19 symptoms, such as a cough or difficulty breathing, a fever and chills, or body aches. If so, they are encouraged to get medical care as soon as possible.
“If you are not feeling well, please reschedule,” the staff tells them.
Because it was deemed an essential medical business, Dr. Chhim’s practice continued to operate even after Governor Inslee announced a statewide “stay-at-home” order last March in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
She immediately reduced operations to one-third their normal level, limiting office visits to just one patient per hour. Since the state began gradually reopening the economy under the governor’s “Safe Start” plan, she has begun seeing two patients per hour.
BEST PRACTICES TO SAFEGUARD HEALTH
The staff immediately cleans all surfaces and equipment after each patient visit. A sign is then posted on each examination room door: “This room has been sanitized.”
When the next patient arrives, they sanitize the room all over again while the patient watches to reassure them that they are following best practices.
In the waiting room, which has been rearranged to provide more space between chairs, a sign says, “Notice: We’re Practicing Social Distancing.”
Patients trying on new eyeglass frames are instructed to place them in a bin rather than placing them back on the display rack. Each pair is then sanitized.
Likewise, every patient who signs forms upon arriving is given a sanitized pen and instructed to place it in a “used pen” bin afterwards. When they check in, they are separated from office staff by a large, plastic “sneeze guard” to prevent the virus from spreading.
“We have a really diverse clientele,” Dr. Chhim says. “We see everybody. And they really appreciate it that we’re constantly keeping everything clean.”