Do you think you could spot a nurse riding on the subway or shopping in a grocery store? You probably could, given how recognizable nurse uniforms are. Most nurses in this day and age wear scrubs. Those who do not still don some kind of uniform that we recognize as being related to healthcare.

This begs a disturbing question we would only ask in the COVID-19 era: should hospital workers avoid wearing scrubs outside of work? We must entertain the question now that reports of nurses and doctors being attacked are starting to surface. We are not hearing of such stories in this country yet, but they are being heard elsewhere.

Healthcare workers in Singapore reported earlier this year that they were being insulted and ostracized in public. Being easily identified by their uniforms, they were targets of a scared public ready to accuse them of spreading the virus by not leaving their soiled scrubs at work. Unfortunately, what happened in Hong Kong pales by comparison to what is currently happening in the UK.


  • Workers Being Physically Attacked


NHS doctors and nurses face the same types of public humiliation and berating by people who are scared to death that their scrubs are contaminated. It is not a good situation by any means. But being yelled at and called names in public is the least of the workers’ worries. They also have to worry about being physically attacked.

There are reports of escalating attacks against doctors and nurses as they travel to and from work. What are the attackers after? Authorities point to their NHS ID badges. Apparently, restaurants all across the UK are offering free food to worn-out NHS staff members during the COVID-19 crisis. The attackers are allegedly attempting to steal those ID tags so they can get free food too.

Such attacks are absolutely abhorrent by any standard. To think that people in a decent society would attack front-line COVID-19 fighters just to get their hands on a free meal is appalling. And yet, it is now happening in the UK. As such, the NHS has issued new rules directing hospital workers to travel to and from work in plain clothes and to keep their ID badges and lanyards hidden while out and about.


  • Contamination Concerns Among the Public


There is another part of the story we have to address. That is the genuine concern among the general public relating to COVID-19 contamination. Remember that this pandemic is evolving fast. So fast, in fact, that the news changes almost daily. We simply do not know how COVID-19 spreads so quickly. We also don’t know if it’s possible to spread the virus via contaminated healthcare uniforms.

Salt Lake City-based Alsco, a nationwide provider of healthcare linens, says that past research has shown how easily doctor and nurse uniforms can be contaminated with bacteria. That is one of the reasons the company pushed so hard to help establish standards for hygienically clean linens.

Unfortunately, we don’t have any hard data to help us understand if there’s an equal risk of COVID-19 contamination. Perhaps it’s best to err on the side of caution. Maybe it’s best to assume that scrubs and white lab coats could be COVID-19 carriers. And that being the case, uniforms should be left behind at the end of a worker’s shift to be laundered professionally.

Should hospital workers avoid wearing scrubs outside of work? It is a legitimate question that requires a legitimate answer. These are trying times. The last thing we want is for hospital uniforms to be a source of further illness or social anxiety.