Health Advice



For healthcare 'heroes,' death toll keeps rising

Alan Judd, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Health & Fitness

ATLANTA -- David Plater knew all the risks and took every precaution.

It wasn't enough.

The 45-year-old radiology technician at Emory Hillandale Hospital died June 9 from COVID-19, becoming one of the nearly 100 Georgia healthcare workers who have fallen to the coronavirus since March. The deaths call into question the ability of hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities to protect the workers they celebrate as heroes in the fight against an unrelenting plague.

The toll may be much higher. An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that Georgia officials have undercounted deaths among healthcare workers by as much as 30%. At the same time, few medical facilities acknowledge the workers' deaths in public, much less that they could have been infected on the job.

The failure to accurately account for the workers' illnesses and deaths stands against a background of complaints that, five months into the coronavirus pandemic, many healthcare facilities still do not furnish their employees with adequate personal protective equipment or take other safety measures.

A survey by a nurses' union found that only one in four thought their employers provided a safe workplace during the pandemic. Slightly more than half told National Nurses United they had been required to reuse N95 respirator masks and other gear designed for a single deployment.


If hospitals acknowledge outbreaks inside their facilities, "they might have to admit what they're doing isn't working," said Irma Westmoreland, a union vice president and a nurse at the Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in Augusta. "We need to realize what's the new normal, and we need to start making plans for it. This is going to be the new normal for a while."

For now, however, no government agency thoroughly tracks the deaths of healthcare workers or holds their employers accountable for safety lapses.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 130,000 healthcare workers have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and more than 600 have died. But the CDC cautions that, because of incomplete data collection, those numbers are probably low.

Another federal agency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, counts about 800 deaths just among workers in nursing homes.


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