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For healthcare 'heroes,' death toll keeps rising

Alan Judd, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in Health & Fitness

So the couple stopped socializing. They ordered groceries online. They stayed out of restaurants and didn't visit even their closest relatives.

David went nowhere, Kim said, except work and dialysis, and he always wore a face mask. At the hospital, colleagues stepped in when they could so he wouldn't have to work directly with COVID-19 patients. At the dialysis clinic, workers screened patients for fever and other symptoms of the virus; anyone who might be sick was sent to another clinic with extra infection controls.

For more than two months, this worked. But on a Saturday afternoon in late May, Kim was at work when David texted her a picture of a digital thermometer. She reeled when she saw the numbers.

By mid-March, employees of Georgia hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and doctors' offices were sounding alarms: a shortage of protective gear was endangering their lives.

Between March and July, Georgia healthcare workers filed at least 66 complaints with the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The workers alleged their employers had failed to quarantine colleagues exposed to COVID-19; forced them to reuse masks, gloves and gowns; and neglected to sanitize facilities after workers or patients tested positive for the virus.

One of the first complaints, on March 19, claimed that Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center had not provided protective masks to every employee who might be exposed to the virus, including some with compromised immune systems.

 

The same day, Diedre Wilkes, a 42-year-old mammogram technician at Piedmont Newnan Hospital, was found dead in her apartment, her young child unattended in another room for as much as 16 hours. An autopsy determined that Wilkes died of COVID-19, according to her death certificate.

Two weeks later, with OSHA's investigation still open, a nurse who worked at the Athens hospital died with COVID-19 symptoms. Dana Pascal, 54, who worked for an agency that supplies workers to the hospital, died before she was tested for the virus, said her husband, Antonio. Her death certificate said she died of cardiopulmonary failure, septic shock and multiple organ failure, all of which are common factors in COVID-19 fatalities.

In response to the OSHA complaint, a lawyer for Piedmont Healthcare wrote that the Athens hospital followed CDC guidelines for "optimizing" N95 respirators and was taking "appropriate steps to protect employees and reduce employee risk of exposure to COVID-19."

OSHA closed the case without penalizing Piedmont. It did the same in the other 65 Georgia complaints.

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