Health care workers fighting the coronavirus outbreak across the country are getting sick and dying, nurses and doctors say. And despite the fact that they’re essential to fighting the epidemic, no one in the US seems to be keeping track.
Judy Wilson-Griffin, a nurse at SSM Health St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, died last week after testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, according to the St. Louis American. In Georgia, two health care workers who tested positive for COVID-19 died: a 48-year-old woman who worked at Donalsonville Hospital and a 42-year-old mammogram technician at Piedmont Newnan Hospital, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. And Kious Kelly, a 48-year-old assistant nursing manager at Mount Sinai West medical center in Manhattan, died Tuesday after he previously tested positive for COVID-19, according to the New York Post.
Doctors, nurses, and others in health care have sounded the alarm for weeks that a lack of access to testing and personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks and gloves, has left them at a high risk of getting exposed as they fight the virus that’s already killed more than 1,000 people in the country.
Now, they say, their fears are being realized.
“There is not one among us who is not frightened stepping through these hospital doors each day to simply continue doing our job,” Dawn Aldinger, a 59-year-old longtime nurse in Seattle, told BuzzFeed News. “I, for one, have updated my will as I am doubtful I will survive this healthcare crisis.”
And if health care workers get sick, there are cascading impacts that will affect everybody else. Doctors and nurses who keep working while infected can expose more people. If these workers go home to recover, then there are fewer of them to tend to the growing number of infections popping up across the country. If they are so critically ill that they need to seek help, there will be less resources available to treat the general public.
Despite the urgency of protecting health care workers, few states are prioritizing keeping track of whether they are testing positive or dying. Out of the 10 states currently leading the country for infections and deaths contacted by BuzzFeed News, California is the only one publicly reporting on infected health care workers.
At least 35 California health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak have already tested positive for COVID-19, state officials reported on Wednesday. Due to a lack of available testing, this is likely an undercount.
A Washington state official told BuzzFeed News they are asking everyone confirmed with COVID-19 about their profession, but due to incomplete information, they are not disclosing numbers at this time.
Officials in Illinois, New Jersey, and New York, home to the country’s biggest epidemic, said the information is not publicly available. New York officials last week told health care workers not to get tested if they weren’t exhibiting symptoms, even if they were likely exposed, due to shortages in protective and testing equipment.
Meanwhile, Georgia and Michigan officials said they were not tracking health care cases. Florida, Massachusetts, and Louisiana did not respond to an inquiry from BuzzFeed News.
The CDC did not immediately respond to questions about whether the agency is tracking infections in health care workers nationwide.
In Italy, the coronavirus outbreak has overwhelmed the country’s health care system, leading to soaring fatalities and a high number of health care worker infections that has put further strain on the country’s ability to respond. Of the nearly 68,000 known infections in the country, about 9% of them, or 6,205 cases, have been health care workers, according to a March 25 update.
Health care workers in the US have told BuzzFeed News they are deeply concerned about following in Italy’s footsteps.
According to one doctor in Providence, Rhode Island, who declined to be named, the surge in suspected COVID-19 patients is starting to take a toll. “Things are starting to ramp up here,” he told BuzzFeed News in an email. ”I suspect we're about 5 days behind New York. Sadly, we have several residents, fellows, attendings and multiple nurses and other staff who have gotten sick.”
Another nurse practitioner in Washington, DC, said that a death was recently reported in a nursing message group she's in. “We are starting to see our health care providers die very quickly from this virus,” she told BuzzFeed News.
“I am deeply concerned that as the lack of PPE situation worsens, we are going to lose a large portion of our medical providers," she said. "We will then be faced with a pandemic where we don't have enough people to treat the sick, as the pinch point of care is no longer equipment like ventilators, but providers.”
It always seems impossible until it is done.