How clean are hospitals and the sheets on patient beds? Those are the questions being asked after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report this month, linking a fungus on hospital bed linens to the deaths of five children at Children's Hospital in New Orleans in 2008 and 2009.
Lake Charles Memorial Hospital gives us a behind the scenes look at what is being done to keep fungus and germs from making sick people sicker.
Hospital beds are where patients spend the bulk of their time during a hospital stay. From the buttons to the handrails, the nearby phone, the cords and the mattress, every nook and cranny of a hospital room is sanitized. Barbara Walker, a housekeeper at LCMH says, "The mattress is the hardest part. You make certain that you want to spray it down real good."
This is the most time-consuming part of the cleaning process for housekeepers like Walker. She says germs are killed quickly, and everything air dries. "The kill time for everything is one minute," said Walker.
Even with extreme cleaning measures, infection preventionist Bridget Boudreaux says that will not be enough to kill every germ in any hospital setting. "There is no way to kill every germ," she said. "There are things that live in our environment that we are exposed to. It's about how adequate the patient's immune system is to fight off those things."
A weak immune system and a common but dangerous fungus is what the CDC report states made five sick kids even sicker at Children's Hospital. The culprit: fungus transferred to patients through contaminated linens.
"That particular fungus is actually transmitted in air and dust, so it could be something that we're all exposed to all the time, and it has to do with our immunity," said Boudreaux.
Most hospitals, like Memorial, use laundry companies to clean their linens. The linens are washed between 160 and 170 degrees and put into protective plastic wrapping once it is dry to prevent contamination. The next step is delivery to the hospital. Once there, the linen is loaded into clean bins and distributed to other parts of the hospital.
"We then put it into our carts here, and everything stays covered," said Boudreaux. "Just as we transport anything from this room to the floors, everything stays covered in those containers."
From the linen closet, housekeepers like Walker have another set of standards to follow. "We put it inside a clean bag and put it in the room," she said.
The linens cannot touch the staff's skin or clothing and the removal after a stay is also meticulous. "Then you tie it up, and I would take it and place it outside my door," said Walker.
A bed is only ready when every sterile step has been completed.
The author of the CDC report detailing the bed linen fungus spread says the approach for very sick patients needs to be more aggressive, as more and more people are on medications that weaken their immune systems.