More than 900 front-line health care workers have died of COVID-19, according to an interactive database unveiled Tuesday by The Guardian and KHN. Lost on the Frontline is a partnership between the two newsrooms that aims to count, verify and memorialize every U.S. health care worker who dies during the pandemic.
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It is the most comprehensive accounting of U.S. health care workers’ deaths in the country.
As coronavirus cases surge — and dire shortages of lifesaving protective gear like N95 masks, gowns and gloves persist — the nation’s health care workers are again facing life-threatening conditions in Southern and Western states.
Through crowdsourcing and reports from colleagues, social media, online obituaries, workers unions and local media, Lost on the Frontline reporters have identified 922 health care workers who reportedly died of COVID-19 and its complications.
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A team of more than 50 journalists from the Guardian, KHN and journalism schools have spent months investigating individual deaths to make certain that they died of COVID-19, and that they were indeed working on the front lines in contact with COVID patients or working in places where they were being treated. The reporters have also been investigating the circumstances of their deaths, including their access to personal protective equipment (PPE), and tracking down family members, co-workers, union representatives and employers to comment about their deaths.
Thus far, we have independently confirmed 167 deaths and published their names, data and stories about their lives and how they will be remembered. We are continuing to confirm additional victims and are publishing new names weekly.
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The tally includes doctors, nurses and paramedics, as well as crucial support staff such as hospital custodians, administrators and nursing home workers, who put their own lives at risk during the pandemic to care for others.
The early data indicates that dozens have died who were unable to access adequate PPE and at least 35 succumbed after federal work-safety officials received safety complaints about their workplaces. Early tallies also suggest that the majority of the deaths were among people of color, and many were immigrants. But because this database is a work in progress — with new confirmed cases added weekly — the early findings represent a fraction of total reports and are not representative of all health care worker deaths.
Of the 167 workers added to the Lost on the Frontline database so far:
- A majority — 103 (62%) — were identified as people of color.
- At least 52 (31%) were reported to have had inadequate PPE.
- The median age was 57 and ages ranged from 20 to 80, with 21 people (13%) under 40.
- About one-third — at least 53 — were born outside the United States, and 25 were from the Philippines.
- The majority of the deaths, 103, were in April, after the initial surge on the East Coast.
- Roughly 38% — 64 — were nurses, but the total also included physicians, pharmacists, first responders and hospital technicians, among others.
- At least 68 lived in New York and New Jersey, two states hit hard at the outset of the pandemic, with Illinois and California next.
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Some of these deaths were preventable. Poor preparation, government missteps and an overburdened health care system increased that risk. Inadequate access to testing, a nationwide shortage of protective gear and resistance to social distancing and mask-wearing have forced more patients into overburdened hospitals and driven up the death toll.
Gaps in government data have increased the need for independent tracking. The federal government has failed to accurately count health care worker fatalities. As of Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 587 deaths among health workers — but the agency does not list specific names and has conceded this is an undercount.
Recent moves by the White House underscore the need for public data and accountability. In July, the Trump administration ordered health facilities to send data on hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 directly to the Department of Health and Human Services, bypassing the CDC. In the succeeding days, vital information on the pandemic disappeared from the public eye. (The data was later restored following a public outcry, but the agency indicated it may no longer update the figures because of a change in federal reporting requirements.)
Lost on the Frontline reporters have compiled hundreds of potential cases through crowdsourcing and reports from colleagues, social media, online obituaries, workers unions and local media. They are independently confirming each death before publishing names, data and obituaries.
Exclusive stories by the reporters have revealed that many health care workers are using surgical masks that are far less effective than N95 masks and have put them in jeopardy. Emails obtained via a public records request showed that federal and state officials were aware in late February of dire shortages of PPE.
Further investigations found that health workers who contracted the coronavirus and their families now struggle to access death and other benefits in the workers’ compensation system. Our reporting has also examined the deaths of 19 health care workers under age 30 who died from COVID-19.
KHN senior correspondent Christina Jewett and Melissa Bailey contributed to this report.
Danielle Renwick, The Guardian and Shoshana Dubnow
Kaiser Health News
Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.