Staff members at Copley Hospital in Morrisville have added another task to their daily and nightly rounds: laundry duty.
Kleen Inc., based in Lebanon, N.H., abruptly closed down June 28. One of the main laundry hubs for the Vermont and New Hampshire area, it left more than a dozen hospitals without laundry service. And hospitals go through a lot of linen.
Copley spokesman Dean Mudgett said the hospital was, basically, “screwed over with eight days’ notice.”
“It’s like the internet,” he said. “You take it for granted, and when it goes down, you’re like, ‘Oh, my!’”
Kleen, founded in 1897, has had financial difficulties in recent years. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2016 and recently closed dry cleaning and laundry locations in Lebanon and Claremont, N.H.
Kleen has long provided clean patient and surgical gowns, bedsheets, towels, washcloths and hospital coats — which are crucial to prevent disease — to about 20 hospitals in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Last winter, Kleen informed hospital officials it was having trouble, but several hospital officials said they were shocked the business was closing. Some learned about the closure from other hospitals.
The news was particularly devastating because Kleen had a monopoly in its service area, said Brian Olsen of Rutland Regional Hospital.
Hospital officials tried to find a collaborative solution, possibly including operating the Kleen plant themselves. But that turned out not to be economically viable, so every hospital had to go it alone.
Laundry near the ER
Last week, Copley installed a mobile laundromat in a trailer near the emergency room entrance. Mudgett said it will be used for at least a few months while the hospital finds a new laundry service.
The trailer houses six dryers and six washers. They don’t look much bigger than typical household appliances, but Mudgett said they can wash and/or dry 20 pounds of linens at a time. There’s an air conditioning unit in there, and a few small oscillating fans stir the air about a bit on a particular sticky July day.
Mudgett said all the trailer needs is a water supply from a garden hose and electrical hookups, both of which happened to be near the emergency room ambulance drop-off.
“It came to us immaculate and clean, and was just plug-and-play,” he said.
Copley owns all of its linens, rather than leasing them from Kleen, as some hospitals did.
The hospital already had a big commercial-grade washer and dryer, but that was meant to supplement the thrice-weekly deliveries from Kleen. Those two machines would burn out and break down soon if called upon to handle the small hospital’s 6,000-pound-per-week load.
Those 6,000 pounds are 300 loads of laundry a week in the trailer — gowns, curtains, blankets, pillowcases.
“If it was winter right now, it’d be worse,” Mudgett said.
The hospital has tried to trim where and when it uses linens, opting for disposable paper gowns and bed-liners. Health centers and dental offices often use those, but hospitals, with multi-night stayovers, typically don’t, Mudgett said.
“We’re using those where appropriate and when appropriate,” he said.
Paper isn’t appropriate for the stickier situations. Bodily fluids — blood, feces and mucus — need something fabric to absorb them. And now, the hospital’s Environmental Services staff is handling those biohazards.
As Vermont hospitals cast about for a new source of linens, a Montreal linen company, Medique Medical Supplies, was able to take on a few extra clients right away, but Copley wasn’t one of them.
Mudgett said the Kleen closure was a “double whammy.” First, a small hospital like Copley wasn’t going to be worth the time for a large laundry service to partner with in the span of a week.
Second, Copley isn’t directly located off Interstates 89 or 91, so there’s not much incentive for a laundry service to set up a transportation agreement on short notice. There are just no major trucking routes.
Mudgett said some places, like Central Vermont Medical Center in Berlin, are right off the interstate and have the option of taking their linens to Burlington and piggybacking on the UVM Medical Center shipments.
Mudgett couldn’t supply exact numbers on the cost of Copley Hospital doing its own laundry. But hospitals that have found other suppliers are facing a jump in expenses.
Central Vermont paid Kleen about 40 cents per pound; it will pay Medique 62 cents per pound. Rutland Regional, which uses 1.2 million pounds of laundry a year, found a supplier in Albany, N.Y., whose prices are 5 cents per pound higher than Kleen’s 40 cents.
Mudgett said Copley Hospital is leaning heavily on its Environmental Services crew, which was already responsible for stripping and cleaning rooms and gathering the laundry for shipping.
Now they add washing, drying and folding to their duties.
Regular hospital staff members have stepped up to volunteer, especially with the folding.
“There’s a lot of folding going on,” Mudgett said. “A lot of good spirit and people coming together.
“We’re hoping it’ll change in a few months, come fall,” he said.
VTDigger contributed to this report.