Recently, NPR’s All Things Considered discussed a troubling story on the show: rapidly increases diagnoses, and fatalities, of healthcare workers stemming from COVID-19. The novel coronavirus was declared a pandemic in March 2020. But the number of diagnoses and fatalities continue to rise. With healthcare workers on the front lines, this group is dealing with fallout from the pandemic. So let’s unpack what Ailsa Chang (NPR’s host) spoke about with health reporter Will Stone and president of National Nurses United Zenei Cortez.
COVID-19 is a novel coronavirus that began in Wuhan, China. It is now located in 213 countries and territories worldwide. In some cases, symptoms are extremely mild; some people are asymptomatic carriers, meaning they have been infected with the virus but show no symptoms. However, more severe cases may experience fever, chills, weight loss, a painful and persistent cough, small blood clots, and loss of smell and taste. Extremely severe cases, which cause pneumonia and respiratory distress, require hospitalization and ventilation.
According to the CDC, there are 1,698,523 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 in the United States. These resulted in 100,446 deaths as of the morning of May 28. Of these, 63,136 diagnosed cases (3.7%) are healthcare workers, with approximately 300 fatalities.
While the CDC does offer information and advice for healthcare workers, many workers are still at risk due to resource scarcity. Many dentists, doctors, hospitals, and other workers are struggling due to a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE). As a result, this group is at the forefront of stopping COVID-19…but at a huge personal risk.
Problems for Healthcare Workers
Host Ailsa Chang acknowledges the huge problem with the new numbers; mainly, they represent a massive change from data released by the CDC just 1.5 months ago.
Healthcare reporter Will Stone shares that initial data from April shows under 10,000 COVID-19 infections, with only 30 healthcare workers dying. Thus, there has been a 600% increase in infections and diagnoses, with a nearly 1,000% increase in fatalities.
Admittedly, the number is probably much higher, as many CDC reports fail to acknowledge one’s employment. A nurses’ union that also tracks data believes up to 530 healthcare workers, if not more, died due to the virus. That represents a nearly 1,700% increase from April’s reported numbers!
Next, Chang questions why healthcare workers are becoming ill at such an alarming rate. When she asks whether this is because of a lack of PPE, Stone agrees. With PPE like N-95 masks becoming widely unavailable, some workers are forced to continually use their masks.
Additionally, some hospitals are moving too quickly for doctors and nurses to receive adequate protection. Zenei Cortez shares a story of how a nurse assisted with a patient with COVID-19. But because of the patient’s status, and quick response time, the nurse only had a surgical mask for protection. Unfortunately, two weeks later, she died of COVID-19.
Reopening the Country
At this time, reopening the United States is a controversial decision. There are many factors which play into it, from protecting the economy to ensuring that people can support themselves and their family through work. But reopening the country too soon will result in a spike in cases, and another wave of COVID-19.
However, something needs to be done to protect healthcare workers in the interim. Chang and Stone both argue for better product availability, enhanced security protocols, new medical equipment, and adaptable standards. Ultimately, doctors and nurses need PPE, especially when working within a pandemic. But more than that, the CDC and other governmental organizations need to help prepare standards and protocols for safely working with patients with COVID-19.