More than 2,900 healthcare workers died that year – and the government barely kept track of it

This story also ran on The Guardian. It can be republished for free.

More than 2,900 U.S. health care workers have died from the COVID-19 pandemic since March, a far higher number than the government reported, according to a new analysis by KHN and The Guardian.

Coronavirus deaths are young, with the majority of victims being under 60 in cases for which age data is available. People of color are disproportionately affected, accounting for around 65% of deaths in cases where data on race and ethnicity are available. After interviewing relatives and friends of around 300 victims, KHN and The Guardian learned that a third of 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 badly hit at the start of the pandemic. In the months that followed, significant numbers also died in the southern and western states.

The results are part of Lost on the Frontline, a nine-month data and investigation project by KHN and The Guardian to track all healthcare workers who have died of COVID-19.

One of the lost, 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 while wearing the surgical mask given to him from the Las Vegas hospital was made available in which he worked. DeJesus died on August 15th.

Another fatality was Sue Williams-Ward, a 68-year-old domestic worker who made $ 13 an hour in Indianapolis who bathed, dressed and fed clients without PPE, her husband said. She was intubated for six weeks before she died on May 2nd.

“Lost on the Frontline” prompts new government action to investigate the root cause of death in health care workers and to take steps to better prosecute them. Officials from the Department of Health and Human Services recently asked the National Academy of Sciences for “quick expert advice” on why so many health care workers are dying in the US, citing the number of fallen workers from The Guardian and KHN.

“The question is where do they get infected?” asked Michael Osterholm, a member of President-elect Joe Biden’s COVID-19 advisory team and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “This is clearly a critical issue that we need to answer and we don’t have that.”

The National Academies’ December 10 report suggests a new federal tracking system and specially trained contact tracers that would consider PPE guidelines and availability.

This would add critical knowledge that could inform the generations to come and give meaning to the lives lost.

“Those [health care workers] are people who went to work every day taking care of patients, putting food on the table for families, and each and every one of those lives mattered, ”said Sue Anne Bell, Assistant Professor of Nursing and Co at the University of Michigan Author of the report of the national academies.

The recommendations come at a difficult time for healthcare workers as some receive the COVID-19 vaccine while others struggle for their lives amid the highest rates of infection the nation has seen.

The toll continues to rise. For example, in Indianapolis, 41-year-old nurse Kindra Irons died on December 1st. According to her husband, Marcus, she saw seven or eight home health patients a week in full PPE, including an N95 mask and iron face shield.

The virus destroyed her lungs so badly that six weeks with the most aggressive life support equipment, ECMO, couldn’t save them, he said.

Marcus Irons said he is now struggling financially to support their two youngest children, ages 12 and 15. “Nobody should have to go through what we’re going through,” he said.

In Massachusetts, Mike “Flynnie” Flynn, 43, oversaw transportation and laundry services at North Shore Medical Center, a hospital in Salem, Massachusetts. He and his wife also raised young children, ages 8, 10, and 11.

Flynn, who shone in father-daughter dances, fell ill in late November and died on December 8th. According to his father, Paul Flynn, he had a heart attack on the couch at home. A hospital spokesman said he had full access to PPE and free on-site testing.

Since the first months of the pandemic, more than 70 reporters from The Guardian and KHN have reviewed numerous government and public data sources, interviewed survivors, and spoken to health professionals to compile a census.

The totals include deaths recorded by unions, obituaries and news agencies, as well as online postings from survivors and relatives of the deceased. The total announced by The Guardian and KHN was approximately 1,450 healthcare worker deaths. The new figure reflects the inclusion of data reported by nursing homes and health care facilities to the federal and state levels. These deaths include the names of the facilities but not the names of the workers. Reporters checked every record to make sure deaths weren’t showing up twice in the database.

The balance sheet was widely quoted by other media outlets as well as members of Congress.

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) Referred to the data, citing the need for an upcoming bill that would provide compensation to the families of healthcare workers who have died from COVID-19 or who have suffered long-term disabilities.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) Mentioned the review in a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the medical supply chain. “The fact is,” he said, “the lack of PPE has put our doctors, nurses and nurses at great risk.”

This story is part of Lost on the Frontline, an ongoing project by The Guardian and Kaiser Health News to document the lives of US health care workers dying from COVID-19 and investigate why so many victims are the disease. If you have a colleague or loved one that we should involve, please share their story with us.

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