Battling Covid in the laundry of a Paris hospital

The coronavirus pandemic has put added pressure not just on hospital staff, but also the workers who wash their clothes
The coronavirus pandemic has put added pressure not just on hospital staff, but also the workers who wash their clothes STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN AFP
3 min
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Paris (AFP)

An army of laundry workers tirelessly sorts, washes and dries a colossal wave of brightly coloured linen at Paris's Pitie-Salpetriere hospital every day, in a endless battle to wash away Covid-19.

"We consider all laundry potentially contaminated," says Cedric Martin, the head of the hospital's laundry section.

France is currently recording an average of more than 20,000 new coronavirus infections a day, piling pressure onto not only hospital workers, but also the people who wash their clothes.

"We handle 33 tonnes of dirty laundry every day: 23,000 sheets, 10,000 mattress protectors, 10,000 pillowcases, 18,000 work clothes, 8,000 patient gowns," says Jean-Charles Grupeli, head of logistics at the Paris public hospital group, AP-HP.

Hundreds of huge orange, blue and red bags filled with laundry from 38 different hospitals wait their turn at the entrance to Pitie-Salpetriere's "dirty zone".

The laundry room first opened in 1898, with the nuns and convalescents giving way to industrial machinery and treatments.

Nearly 120 people -- and as many machines -- now work there from 6:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. five days a week.

Grupeli says that in mid-March, during the first wave of the pandemic, "we had to fill a third of the positions with volunteers, many of whom came from the cinema, financial administration or catering".

He recalls the "good atmosphere" during that time, while lamenting that they could not enjoy conviviality such as "having a drink or eating together" due to health safety measures.

At the height of France's outbreak, demand for bedlinen plummeted as non-coronavirus patients avoided the hospital, while the volume of clothes for health workers rose by 25 percent.

- From dirty to clean zone -

The first stop for the dirty laundry is the sorting workshop, where around 10 workers listen to music as they separate the blue scrubs, green mattress covers and the occasional pink maternity gown.

"We do not work by dirtiness, but by item," says a laundry worker wearing protective glasses.

The items next head to four giant "washing tunnels", where everything is laundered at 60 degrees Celsius (140 Fahrenheit). The temperature has been cranked up from 40 degrees C since the pandemic began.

Then, it's the "clean zone".

"I put the sheets in and the machine sucks them up to hang them up, and directs them to machines that dry and fold," says Angela Couchy, who has been a laundry worker for 15 years.

Suspended in the air, sheets and mattress covers move past each other on rails before entering another machine that folds them perfectly.

Yet another machine then wraps everything in plastic, ready to be sent back to the hospital wards.

All this machinery produces a deafening roar throughout the workday.

"When that stops, we're happy," says Couchy.