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Frontline casualties: The health care workers that lost their lives saving COVID patients

While a lot has been reported on the struggles of health workers during the pandemic, there's been far less news on the deaths of doctors, nurses and other support staff. A major reporting project has been gathering this crucial information and looking at the pandemic's full impact on frontline workers. William Brangham speaks to reporter Christina Jewett of Kaiser Health News about the project.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We and many others have spent much time covering the struggles of health care workers during the pandemic, but there's been far less attention to the deaths of doctors, nurses and other support staff.

    A major reporting project has been gathering crucial information and looking at the impact of COVID on these front-line workers.

    William Brangham has more.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, throughout the pandemic, the federal government didn't track this kind of data.

    But a joint project by Kaiser Health News and The Guardian called Lost on the Frontline created its own database to do so. Their teams found that more than 3,600 health care workers in the U.S. died during the pandemic's first year. Two-thirds of them were people of color. A third were born outside the United States. And more than half were younger than 60.

    But the project wasn't simply about data. Reporters also tried to capture something about these individual lives and how their loved ones left behind are coping.

    Christina Jewett of Kaiser Health News was one of the lead reporters. And she joins me now.

    Christina, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    And this is really a terrific piece of journalism that you guys have been doing. This is obviously a huge slice of — a huge number within this one slice of the work force that lost their lives.

    I mentioned something of their demographics, but who were they in the in the medical setting? Who were these people, broadly speaking?

  • Christina Jewett:

    Well, what we found was about 17 percent were doctors, but the bulk were actually workers who really spent more time in the room with the patients.

    It was your patient care technicians. It was your certified nursing assistants. It was your nurses. When you talk to aerosol scientists and they talk about sort of how aerosols accumulate, like a cigarette cloud in a room, and you think about who is spending the most time in that room, that's what we really saw, was those workers who were — who were really close up with the patient for lengths of time were the ones who lost their lives, by and large.

  • William Brangham:

    Thirty-six people is an enormous number, but are there particular stories that stand out to you as memorable,that you think of as sort of emblematic of this crisis?

  • Christina Jewett:

    You know, there's a couple.

    One is George Nako (ph). When his wife talked to me, it was entirely through tears. And she recounted a 35-year love story that started in their native Albania. They won an immigration lottery to come to the U.S., and it was just your classic story of really hard work, which brought him to be a dialysis technician at Beaumont Health.

    And she knew he was at risk. She said: Leave the machine outside in the hall. Let the nurses handle it.

    And he wouldn't hear of that. He took it in the room. He made sure the patients were comfortable. He got them water and talked to them. And he got the virus, and he died.

    And this is a man who had spent years telling everyone his son would be a doctor. And when his son had that white coat ceremony welcoming him into medical school, his dad had passed. And that loss was greatly felt. And so it's stories like that that really stick with me of the incredible sacrifices these families have made.

  • William Brangham:

    There's a man named Walter Veal who you reported on. Can you tell us a little bit about him?

  • Christina Jewett:

    Yes.

    Walter Veal had a grandson who had a developmental delay, and he worked at a facility for people outside of Chicago who had developmental disabilities called Ludeman. And he really cared for those patients. He would barbecue them for their birthdays. He would bring them a birthday cake. He bathed them.

    He was a superhero to his wife. That's what she told us. And they raised four children together. This was another love story, where she recounted the last moment she saw him pull down his oxygen mask in the ambulance to mouth, "I love you."

    And this is someone who had been working with gloves, no respiratory protection at all. He had gloves. And he died. And we found in one of our investigations that his death and several others at that facility were not even reported to workplace safety regulators, as were dozens of others.

  • William Brangham:

    In addition to those types of cases, your reporting also shows that a lot of reason these people got infected and then died was, in part, because of our misunderstanding early on about how the coronavirus was spreading.

  • Christina Jewett:

    You know, that's right.

    The guidelines were written early on, and they weren't changed. And what we saw was, there was this notion that the intubation was considered an aerosol-generating procedure. And the doctors, the staff around for that procedure would get the very best PPE if there was a shortage.

    And beyond that, people caring for COVID patients could wear a surgical mask. And what we later learned was that this is an airborne virus, and that a cough, just a simple cough, generated actually 10 times more aerosols than an actual intubation procedure.

    The researchers are sort of looking at that now, and there are some who are saying the guidelines that are really in place still all over the world are a house of cards that has fallen. And that's still debated within the medical field, whether this virus requires sort of that higher level of airborne protection with the N95 mask, or whether it's OK for health care workers in surgical masks to be caring for COVID patients.

  • William Brangham:

    You and your colleagues are closing out this project, partly because these deaths are declining, which is, of course, good news. It's also partly because we all can sort of see the light at the end of the tunnel with these vaccines, which is also great news.

    I wonder, though, if you worry that, if we move too quickly past this, that we won't really do a very good reckoning of what went wrong that cost all these people their lives.

  • Christina Jewett:

    That's right.

    A lot of research we have seen has come from really elite academic medical institutions. And that is just not where we saw people die. So, I think the question of sort of what happened in the third best hospital in a midsized metro region, what happened inside a nursing home, you know, why did some people not fall ill and keep their lives, and why did some lose those, I mean, drilling down into that, outside of sort of Boston, outside of Johns Hopkins, so we are better prepared, better able to protect people if this ever happens again.

    I think that work, to some degree, still needs to be done.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Christina Jewett of Kaiser Health News, thank you very much for this tremendous piece of journalism.

  • Christina Jewett:

    Well, thank you for having me.

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