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Missouri Inmates Clean Hospital Laundry

"Fires don't chase firemen home," said Dr. Howie Mell, an emergency physician. "But this bug chases lots of folks home, and that's a new reality."
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri inmates are sterilizing hospital linens and scrubs from SSM Health through the Department of Corrections vocational program.

Missouri inmates are cleaning SSM Health’s hospital linens and scrubs.

SSM Health contracts out its laundry services to Missouri Vocational Enterprises, an inmate labor program, through the Missouri Department of Corrections. 

Inmates cleaning linens are required to wear gear and are taught how to handle soiled linens and scrubs to limit the risk, according to the DOC website. The current safety measures also have been approved by the Healthcare Laundry Accreditation Council. A DOC spokeswoman did not return a request for comment.

In a statement, a spokesperson for SSM Health said it prioritizes the health and well-being of its employees, the community and anyone the system does business with.

“We have safeguards in place to prevent the spread of a variety of illnesses including influenza and now COVID-19,” the spokesperson said.

The risk of inmates contracting the coronavirus from linens such as bedsheets, towels and gowns is low, said Stephen Liang, an assistant professor of medicine at Washington University School of Medicine. 

“This is a disease that's transmitted through respiratory droplets,” Liang said. “So these patients aren't having uncontrolled vomiting or diarrhea or bleeding, anything that would heavily soil that linen with viral particles.”

The same can be said for health care worker scrubs. That’s mainly because health care workers wear personal protective equipment like gloves, face masks and gowns when caring for patients with COVID-19.

“These things provide a barrier against any kind of a viral transmission to the scrubs that the health care personnel are wearing,” Liang said.

While the risk of contracting the virus remains low, Liang said inmates in general are at a higher risk.

“Folks are living in close quarters to each other,” he said. “It's difficult to socially distance. And then also we think about inmates who might be older who might have chronic medical conditions that put them at a higher risk for acquiring COVID-19.”

So far, 23 inmates at Southeast Correctional Center have COVID-19. Liang said it’s crucial that inmates who are exhibiting symptoms be tested.

“The risks as far as undiagnosed disease, particularly in a closed population like a corrections setting, can lead to large outbreaks, which we have seen across the country.”

In addition to more testing, Liang said continued handwashing is crucial.

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Marissanne is the afternoon newscaster at St. Louis Public Radio.