More than 2,900 U.S. health workers have been killed in the Covid-19 pandemic since March, a much higher number than reported by the government, according to a new analysis by the Guardian and KHN.
Healthcare deaths from the coronavirus skew young people, with the majority being under 60 years of age in cases for which age data is available. People of color were disproportionately affected and are responsible for more than 65% of the fatalities in cases where there is data on race and ethnicity. After interviewing relatives and friends of about 300 victims, Guardian and KHN found that a third of the deaths were related to concerns about inadequate personal protective equipment.
Many of the deaths – about 680 – occurred in New York and New Jersey, which were hit hard at the beginning of the pandemic. Significant numbers also died in the southern and western states in the months that followed.
The findings are part of Lost on the Frontline, a nine-month data and research project by KHN and the Guardian to track down every health worker who dies as a result of the pandemic.
One victim, Vincent DeJesus, 39, told his brother Neil that he would be in big trouble if he spent a lot of time with a Covid-positive patient in the surgical mask provided to him by the Las Vegas hospital where he worked. DeJesus died on August 15.
Another fatality was Sue Williams-Ward, a 68-year-old health worker who made $ 13 an hour in Indianapolis and bathed, clothed and fed clients without wearing any PPE, her husband said. She was intubated for six weeks before she died on May 2.
Lost on the Frontline is calling for new government action to investigate the root cause of healthcare deaths and take steps to better identify them. Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services recently asked the National Academies of Sciences for a “quick expert consultation” on why so many health workers are dying in the US, citing the Guardian and KHN count of fallen workers.
“The question is where do they get infected?” asked Michael Osterholm, a member of Joe Biden’s Covid-19 advisory team and the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “Clearly that is a critical point that we have to answer, and we don’t have it.”
The Dec. 10 report from the National Academies suggests a new federal tracking system and specially trained contact locators who consider PPE policy and availability.
This would add critical knowledge that could inform future generations and give meaning to the lives just lost.
“That [healthcare workers] are people who walked to work every day because they cared about patients, put food on the table for families, and each of those lives matters, ” said Sue Anne Bell, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Michigan and the co-author of the National Academies report.
The recommendations come at a loaded time for health professionals, as some get the Covid-19 vaccine while others fight for their lives amid the highest levels of infection the US has seen.
The toll continues to rise. In Indianapolis, for example, 41-year-old nurse Kindra Irons died on December 1. According to her husband, Marcus Irons, she saw seven or eight home care patients a week wearing full personal protective equipment, including an N95 mask and a face shield.
The virus destroyed her lungs so much that six weeks on the most aggressive life-support equipment, ECMO, couldn’t save her, he said.
Marcus Irons said he is now struggling to financially support their two youngest children, ages 12 and 15. “No one should be going through what we are going through,” he said.
In Massachusetts, 43-year-old Mike “Flynnie” Flynn oversaw transportation and laundry services at North Shore Medical Center, a Salem hospital. He and his wife also raised young children aged eight, ten, and eleven.
Flynn, who starred at father-daughter dances, fell ill in late November and died on December 8. According to his father, Paul Flynn, he had a heart attack at home on the couch. A hospital spokesperson said he had full access to personal protective equipment and free on-site testing.
Since the early months of the pandemic, more than 70 reporters at The Guardian and KHN have examined numerous government and public data sources, interviewed the next of kin, and spoke with health care experts to build a census.
The total number includes fatalities identified by unions, death reports and news outlets, and in online messages from next of kin, as well as by relatives of the deceased. The previous total announced by the Guardian and KHN was about 1,450 healthcare deaths. The new number reflects the inclusion of data reported to federal and state governments by nursing homes and health facilities. These deaths include the names of the facility, but not the names of the employees. Reporters checked each record to make sure fatalities did not appear twice in the database.
The census has been widely quoted by other media outlets and by members of Congress.
California Representative Norma Torres referred to the data, citing the need for a current account that would provide compensation to the families of health workers who have died or been long-term disabled by Covid-19.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden referred to the count in a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the medical supply chain. “The fact is,” he said, “the shortage of personal protective equipment has put our doctors, nurses and caregivers at great risk.”