- Dr. Claire Rezba is documenting the deaths of healthcare workers who have died from COVID-19.
- Rezba says at least 1,200 healthcare employees in the United States have died from the disease so far.
- Studies indicate that workers of color are more likely to contract the novel coronavirus and die from it.
The COVID-19 pandemic in the United States has been raging for more than 7 months — and it’s hitting some community members particularly hard.
Healthcare workers who provide assistance to people with COVID-19 in hospitals, nursing homes, and other settings are at high risk of exposure to the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) that causes the disease.
That raises their chances of contracting the virus and puts them at risk of dying from COVID-19.
Dr. Claire Rezba has been documenting COVID-19-related fatalities in U.S. healthcare workers since March, memorializing their lives and deaths on her Twitter account.
“I started in March at first as an outlet for my own anxieties about COVID,” Rezba, an anesthesiologist at Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Richmond, Virginia, told Healthline.
“I had seen an article about Diedre Wilkes and her story was so tragic,” Rezba said. “I didn’t want to just look away. So I kept counting.”
Official tally underestimates deaths
In mid-April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its first report on COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths among American healthcare personnel.
The CDC reported at that time that 27 workers had died.
However, critics say that tally was a gross underestimate.
By that point, Rezba had already documented more than 150 deaths among healthcare workers across the country.
“That was extremely upsetting to see such a discrepancy,” Rezba said. “So my list morphed from a personal coping technique into more of a mission of accountability and to make sure the losses were really acknowledged.”
According to the CDC’s latest count, more than 170,000 U.S. healthcare workers have now contracted the virus and 742 have died from COVID-19.
Rezba’s count of deaths stands at more than 1,200.
“I’d like [the public] to know that a minimum of 1,200 healthcare workers have died and that even this number is an undercount,” Rezba said. “Each person lost represents a loss of expertise and experience that can’t just be replaced.”
Gaps in tracking, reporting
Even Rezba’s count of fatalities among healthcare workers may underestimate the toll that that pandemic has taken on doctors, nurses, technicians, hospital support staff, nursing home staff, and others.
In a report issued this past week, National Nurses United (NNU) put the number of deaths among healthcare workers at more than 1,700.
To document the deaths, the nurses union has been trawling media reports, social media, obituaries, union memorials, and federal and state data.
The authors of the new report take the government and healthcare industry to task for their failures to effectively track and report deaths.
“There is widespread resistance on the part of the healthcare industry to transparently provide information on nurse and other healthcare worker fatalities due to COVID-19,” write the authors.
“At the same time, federal, state, and local governments have failed to compel health care facilities to provide this data,” they add.
Workers of color at higher risk
Some healthcare workers are more likely than others to contract the virus.
According to a study published in The Lancet Public Health, healthcare personnel who work directly with COVID-19-positive patients are at heightened risk of testing positive for the virus.
This study also found that racial and ethnic inequalities that have been observed throughout the larger pandemic have also shaped the patterns of infection among healthcare workers.
“In our recent study, we found the healthcare workers that were Black, Asian, or Hispanic were over 3-fold more likely to contract COVID-19 compared to white healthcare workers,” said Dr. Andrew T. Chan, MPH, the lead investigator of the study and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
“A key factor underlying that risk was our finding that non-white healthcare workers were more frequently exposed to COVID-infected patients, lack sufficient supplies of [personal protective equipment], and work in high-risk care settings, such as nursing homes,” Chan added.
Non-white healthcare workers are also more likely to live in densely populated communities where virus transmission rates are high and physical distancing is difficult to practice.
Such racial inequalities may contribute not only to heightened risk of infection but also higher rates of death.
According to NNU, more than 58 percent of the registered nurses who have died from COVID-19 have been workers of color.
Personal sacrifice, emotional strain
The pandemic’s negative effects on healthcare workers aren’t limited to the risks of contracting the virus or death alone.
The strain of caring for patients under these circumstances is also taking a toll on healthcare workers’ mental health and well-being.
“The workload associated with caring for such a large number of sick patients, coupled with the unprecedented challenges associated with maintaining personal human connection to our patients, behind layers of masks and PPE, has created a uniquely stressful and emotionally draining situation for many healthcare workers,” Chan told Healthline.
This stress is compounded by the loss of co-workers to COVID-19 and the fear that many healthcare workers carry for themselves and their families.
“I’d like [the public] to know that it is so demoralizing for the co-workers left behind — that many of us are still scared for our safety,” Rezba said.
Strategies to keep workers safe
To help protect healthcare workers, it’s essential that healthcare systems ensure adequate access to personal protective equipment (PPE), Chan said.
Since the start of the pandemic, many hospitals and other healthcare centers and providers have reported shortages in PPE — including masks, face shields, gowns, and gloves.
When NNU surveyed U.S. nurses in July, it found that 87 percent of those who worked in hospitals reported reusing single-use PPE. Only 24 percent thought their employers were providing a safe workplace.
Members of the general public also have a role to play in stopping the spread of the virus to reduce the risks faced by frontline workers.
“Healthcare workers are directly affected by the prevalence of the virus in their local communities. The more COVID is spreading in their local communities, the bigger the challenge that healthcare workers will be facing in the hospitals within those communities,” Chan said.
“Thus, we need members of the general public to wear masks, wash their hands frequently, and observe social distancing guidelines,” he continued.
Rezba also emphasized the importance of wearing face masks to protect not only one’s self but also others.
“I’d like the public to look at the faces and stories on my feed, to acknowledge the losses, and wear a mask to protect themselves and us,” she said.
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