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'Lost On The Front Line': Tracks Health Workers Who Died Of COVID-19

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Over the past year, more than 3,600 health care workers died from the coronavirus in the United States. This is not an official government statistic because the U.S. government has not been doing a very good job of tracking those deaths. The reason we know that number - 3,600 dead - is because reporters at Kaiser Health News and The Guardian decided to build their own database. Their investigation is called Lost on the Frontline. And today marks one year since they began counting. Here to discuss their findings is Christina Jewett, an investigative reporter with Kaiser Health News. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTINA JEWETT: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: Why hasn't the government been able to collect this information very well?

JEWETT: Well, the CDC has been trying. The infection reporting forms they get are supposed to indicate if a person is a health care worker. But that's only actually coming in for about 18% of the cases. Then you have OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

INSKEEP: Right.

JEWETT: They basically left it up to health care employers to decide whether they wanted to report a death. And then you have the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which tends to track this type of thing. But just recently, they said they're not going to be tracking COVID deaths on the job. They said they're going to stick with their traditional focus, which is catastrophic injuries, things like someone crushed by a steamroller. So no one's really taken ownership of this from the federal government. Even the Biden administration has said this is up to the private sector.

INSKEEP: And this feels important just to know, to remember how many people died who were, as a part of their job, in many cases, exposing themselves to people who had coronavirus. So how did you go about trying to find out how many had died?

JEWETT: So every day, we had two people who scoured the Internet. They were going to social media websites, union memorial websites, GoFundMe pages, obituaries. We counted every report to the government where the facility was named. They brought us to 3,600 cases, which is actually 2,000 more than the CDC counted. And for more than 450 of those cases, we called the families. We called the employers. We tried to find out what safety concerns those workers had and who they were.

INSKEEP: Which is an awful thing to have to do, to call family members who've just lost someone. But I know from experience, often, they're relieved that anyone cares, that someone calls to know. What was that experience like for you?

JEWETT: You know, it was hard. I covered crime when I was in my 20s. But now I'm a mom. And I really rely on my own mom. So I understand how hard this is. You know, there was one case that really sticks with me, a 39-year-old guy named Vincent DeJesus. And he was a nurse. And he told his brother he was acutely aware that if he wound up caring for a COVID patient, his surgical mask and face shield probably just wasn't going to be enough to protect him. And he died. And no one from the hospital even reported that case to work safety regulators. And there was a video someone took of his body being rolled down a gurney in the basement of the hospital with all the health care workers, you know, doing sign of the cross, wiping away tears. And that one just really got me in the gut. So these cases, they stick with you.

INSKEEP: The hardest part of that story is remembering how many health care workers were not properly equipped to protect themselves.

JEWETT: Yeah. I mean, at first what you had was a supply chain crisis. There just were not enough N95s. And as time went on, there was a sense that the surgical mask and the face shield was adequate for health care workers caring for COVID patients. And what's really interesting there is that guideline from the CDC was written very early in the pandemic. And it was based on what happened with the first SARS outbreak almost 20 years ago. And so for that one, the patients were really contagious when they showed up at the hospital needing intubation. And so that was believed here to be the riskiest moment, when those patients crashed and those doctors had to do that intubation.

But last summer, what we learned was that this virus was different. People were contagious earlier. And people were contagious when they were coughing, when they're talking, when they're breathing. And so with this pandemic, what you had was, you know, a nursing assistant in a small room with a resident in a nursing home. They're brushing their hair. They're brushing their teeth. They're bathing them. And those workers were just at really incredible risk.

INSKEEP: Statistically, when you go through these more than 3,000 lives, what can you say about them overall, about who they were?

JEWETT: What we know is that about two-thirds of them were people of color. About a third were immigrants. And by and large, it was mainly not doctors who were dying. It was patient care technicians. It was nursing assistants. It was nurses. About 30% worked in hospitals, but most didn't. They largely worked in nursing homes, clinics, mental, behavioral health. And these health care workers, they died younger than the rest of society that we saw die of the coronavirus - on average 59 compared to 78 overall.

INSKEEP: Of the health care workers who have survived, many are still facing the pandemic, which continues. Are people better protected than they were?

JEWETT: They absolutely are. The vaccine has been a huge game changer. But we're still learning more about the risk to the workers. Recently, Harvard researchers discovered that health care workers in that surgical mask and face shield did catch the coronavirus from caring for patients, even though the guidance for months and months said that that would be a safe way to take care of our patients. And that was something that nursing unions warned about even before the first case hit U.S. shores. They basically said, we need to use the precautionary principle, do max protection for an airborne virus until we know what we're dealing with. And largely, in a lot of quarters, they were ignored. They had to take to the streets to demand N95s. And unfortunately, they saw hundreds of nurses die during this pandemic.

INSKEEP: Christina Jewett of Kaiser Health News is part of the Lost on the Frontline project. Thanks so much.

JEWETT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDMUND'S "ABOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.