Uniforms washed at home could increase the spread of COVID-19, warn experts

NHS guidelines state it is safe to wash uniforms at home, provided the temperature is set to at least 60°C.

Matt Bodell
25 April 2020

Healthcare workers could be unintentionally transmitting COVID-19 to their colleagues and patients.

Healthcare workers who wash their uniforms at home could be unintentionally transmitting coronavirus not only to their families but also to their colleagues and patients, scientists have warned.

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Dr Katie Laird, Reader in Microbiology and Head of the Infectious Disease Research Group at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) has provided this stark warning.

DMU has now written to the Government expressing concerns over Public Health England (PHE)’s latest guidance which advises that laundering should be used but if this is not possible, healthcare workers should take uniforms home in a disposable plastic bag.

NHS guidelines state it is safe to wash uniforms at home, provided the temperature is set to at least 60°C.

Dr Laird, who has conducted extensive research into the domestic and industrial wash processes of healthcare uniforms, has strongly advised the Government that all healthcare uniforms should be laundered in hospitals to commercial standards or by an industrial laundry to minimise the risk of contamination and transmission of the virus.

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The virus could transfer onto other surfaces.

“Healthcare worker uniforms are commonly laundered at home in the UK, unlike in the rest of Europe where uniforms are either washed within the hospital or at an industrial laundry,” explained Dr Laird.

“By taking their uniforms home, workers run the risk of contaminating their home environment, including the washing machine, because unlike in-house or industrial laundries, there is no segregation of laundry based on designated soiled and clean areas.

“This means that if the virus is on the uniform, it could transfer onto other surfaces or items of clothing in the wash.

“We also have to consider the fact that washing machines we use at home do not always get up to the temperature shown – so you might think you are washing at 60°C but actually you’re not, which means there is potential for coronavirus to be transmitted back into the hospital environment via the same uniform.”

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The updated NHS uniform and workwear guidelines published on 2 April 2020 states there is little effective difference between domestic and commercial laundering and washing with detergents at 30°C will remove most micro-organisms.

Domestic washing is not sufficient.

However, Dr Laird has raised concerns that the evidence that supports the above statements is mainly based on two literature reviews published in 2007, despite more recent publications – including her own – which indicate that domestic washing is not a sufficient way of decontaminating healthcare laundry.

In a previous study, in which she surveyed 265 hospital staff anonymously at four unnamed hospitals in the East Midlands, Dr Laird found that 44% of nurses said they launder their uniforms at temperatures below 60°C and 40% said they wash them with other items of clothing.

“Adherence to laundering policies at home is low, which leads to inadequate decontamination,” continued Dr Laird. “During the coronavirus outbreak, I would seriously advise that all healthcare uniforms are laundered in house or by an industrial laundry to meet the recommended commercial standard.

“We also need to see further education of nurses and healthcare staff in the role of textiles as a transmission route and laundering guidance.”

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