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New Series Gives Life To Health Care Workers Who Lost Their Lives To COVID-10

NPR’s Scott Simon speaks to Kaiser Health News journalist, Sarah Varney, about Lost on the Frontline, a new series documenting the stories of coronavirus health care workers.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

More than 60,000 health care workers have been infected with the coronavirus, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control. It’s not clear yet how many have died because the CDC depends upon data that’s supplied by the states. Kaiser Health News and The Guardian newspaper are now investigating the deaths of health care workers to make certain that each one is counted and remembered. Sarah Varney, a senior Kaiser Health News correspondent, is working on the project. It’s called Lost On The Frontline, and Sarah Varney joins us. Sarah, thanks for being with us.

SARAH VARNEY, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What made you so interested to tell this story?

VARNEY: Well, when we saw coronavirus first hitting in China, then in Italy and Spain, we saw that health care workers were dying at unprecedented rates. We know that in the U.S. – that in some states, medical staff account for as many as 20% of known coronavirus cases. And these are people who tend to patients in hospitals, doctors and nurses, of course, but also those that serve them food and clean their rooms and move them around the hospital. These are also people who work in nursing homes or our home health aides, emergency responders, as well.

But we also really wanted to understand why they died. So we wanted to track down individual family members and co-workers, talk with them about these people’s lives, of course, but also understand, did they have protective equipment? And many of these cases are shrouded in secrecy. So many of the family members don’t know necessarily what happened to their loved ones when they went to work. Many of the workers themselves weren’t clear if they were treating COVID patients and didn’t know if they were putting some of their own families at risk.

SIMON: You write about Dr. Ronald Verrier, a 59-year-old surgeon at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx. Let me quote your words. You write, “He watched his large flock closely.”

VARNEY: Oh, it was such a pleasure to talk to his colleagues and his family. His colleagues talked about how he would pop into patients’ rooms for these impromptu birthday parties, how he advised so many generations of medical school residents, and he would really press them on their surgical skills. This is a man who was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He graduated medical school there before emigrating to the U.S. And it’s important to remember that the U.S. relies heavily on foreign medical doctors and nurses. And that’s really reflected in those that have died. I talked with his niece, Dr. Christina Pardo. She’s an obstetrician gynecologist in New York. And she told me that he continued to work at home even after he became ill.

CHRISTINA PARDO: He loved what he did. He loved to serve. He loved to care for people. He loved to operate. And knowing him, he would still be there, doing whatever he had to do for the hospital.

SIMON: Sarah, of course, nursing homes have been especially hard hit by the pandemic. Recent reports show that some 26,000 nursing home residents have died. What about the staff?

PARDO: So the only reason we know these numbers is because there have actually been new requirements put in place specifically for nursing homes and long-term care facilities. And rather than now relying on this sort of patchwork of reporting from the states, now nursing homes have to report directly to the CDC about infections and deaths. So we know that 450 nursing home staff have died so far. That number is surely to go up.

And while nursing homes certainly have experience in infection control, the coronavirus has just been orders of magnitude beyond what they’re used to dealing with. And they’ve just been overwhelmed. And it’s also important to remember that nursing homes are at the bottom of the pecking order when it comes to the U.S. health care system. So in order to put an order in for masks and gowns, they’re competing against these huge hospital systems, for instance. You know, we also know that workers in nursing homes are lower paid. Many are not unionized – and that many of the people that we’ve interviewed – their family members say, you know, they were working with no masks or inadequate masks. Or they were asked to reuse masks.

I spoke with the family of Pam Hughes. She was 50 years old when she died. She lived in rural Columbia, Ky. She delivered medicine to residents at Summit Manor – it’s a nursing home there. I spoke with her co-workers, as well. And they told me that, you know, she knew which residents preferred chocolate milk or applesauce with their medication. And her daughter Brie Hughes, she’s 26 years old. She lived in Columbia with her mom. She told me that her mom was deeply worried about getting infected and that she could really see the worry on her mom’s face.

BRIE HUGHES: She was definitely concerned. I was begging her not to go back, as selfish as that sounds. But, I mean, like, that was my mom. I wanted her safe. I wanted her with me. And she looked at me. And she said, somebody has to do it – 100% right. I mean, she dedicated her life to that place for sure. And she took care of those people until she couldn’t anymore.

VARNEY: You know, the nursing homes themselves just say, look. We’ve been begging for help from the states and from the federal government for personal protective equipment. But they’ve also been asking for new laws to provide immunity from lawsuits. And there have been now many lawsuits filed from employers’ families, saying that they were not told that they were working with COVID-infected patients, and they were not given the adequate personal protective equipment.

SIMON: Sarah Varney is with our partner Kaiser Health News, and you can see the faces and read the stories of those Lost On The Frontline series at khn.org. Thank you, Sarah.

VARNEY: Thank you.

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