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The coronavirus continues to beat the healthcare workforce in the United States.
According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 60,000 health workers have been infected and nearly 300 have died from COVID-19.
The numbers mark a staggering increase from six weeks ago when the CDC first released data on coronavirus infections and deaths among nurses, doctors, pharmacists, EMTs, technicians and other medical employees. On April 15, the agency reported 27 deaths and more than 9,000 infections among health workers.
The latest count does not provide a complete picture of the disease in this essential workforce, as only 21% of the case reports sent to the CDC contained information that could help identify the patient as a health worker. Among known health workers, information was also missing on the number of those who died.
Yet the growing number of health workers infected with coronavirus provides sobering evidence that many are still working in high-risk environments without reliable or adequate protection against the virus.
“It’s underreported,” said Zenei Cortez, president of National Nurses United (NNU), the country’s largest nursing union.
The union has compiled its own tally of more than 530 health care deaths from COVID-19, using publicly available information such as obituaries. A recent NNU survey of 23,000 nurses found that more than 80% had not yet been tested for the coronavirus.
Many nurses across the country say they still do not have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gowns, and that they must reuse N95 masks and other supplies – practical who were considered substandard before the pandemic. Many hospitals and nursing homes continue to operate with inadequate supplies and ration them.
“Everything is locked up, if you have to respond to an emergency, sometimes you have to wait for someone to unlock a cabinet,” Cortez said of PPE supplies from some hospitals.
Cortez cites the death of a nurse from southern California who rushed to the bedside of a COVID-19 patient who had stopped breathing. The nurse only wore a surgical mask, which offers less protection against airborne infections than the N95 closer to the body.
“Fourteen days after this incident, she died because she had contracted the virus,” said Cortez. “If PPE was readily available, she may have been able to put on the N95 mask and have been prevented from contracting the virus. “
Cortez is concerned that some of these dangerous infection control practices have normalized in health care settings in the United States and will persist in the coming months as the country reopens.
NPR recently reported that in the spring of 2017, the Trump administration halted the final implementation of new federal regulations that would have forced the healthcare industry to prepare for a pandemic of airborne infectious diseases. As a result, there are no federal workplace rules that specifically protect healthcare workers from deadly airborne pathogens such as the flu, tuberculosis, or coronavirus.
“What’s really sad is not having solid numbers in many states,” said Pat Kane, executive director of the New York State Nurses Association, regarding the number of COVID cases and fatalities among workers. of health.
Kane says that at the start of the epidemic, many nurses were unable to get tested. His own statewide union lost more than 30 nurses in the pandemic.
“Some of them actually died outside the hospital, trying to recover from their homes,” she said.
More than half of nurses in the New York State Union still report that they do not have enough personal protective equipment.
“In some places, we still see people operating under emergency and crisis guidelines,” she said.
In early May, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo praised the results of an antibody test, which showed a 12% infection rate among New York’s healthcare workers, compared to the rate 20% infection among city residents.
But Kane says a lower number is not something to celebrate.
“Our members introduced themselves and many of them made the ultimate sacrifice,” she said. “And many of them fell ill. It was the first round. We should be better informed by our experience. “
As more and more regions of the United States reopen, the safety of healthcare workers must be a key benchmark for policymakers, says Kane, and must include enforceable standards of care – not just voluntary guidelines for employers. , which change depending on the amount of PPE available.
At Northwestern University, Dr. James Adams says that the number of health workers with COVID-19 has dropped dramatically after his hospital began requiring everyone on site to wear masks.
Adams says monitoring the full extent of the COVID-19 burden among health workers will be crucial as access to tests improves.
“So far, we hardly know what’s going on with the workforce and this infection rate,” said Adams, professor of emergency medicine. “What we need is the confidence of healthcare workers, and we need to keep up with this development to ensure their health. “