COVID is killing health care workers. Where's the outrage? Why don't we try to stop this?

·4 min read

In the United States, we value the lives of those who protect us. According to the FBI, 89 law enforcement officers died in line-of-duty incidents last year. Each of those deaths is a tragedy, often marked by funeral processions of hundreds of squad cars from around the country. We mourn those deaths because we know the officers died protecting us. Perhaps that’s one reason we see so many “Defend the Police” yard signs.

What would the country do if more than 1,000 police officers — more than a tenfold increase — died in a single year? There would be outcries from the White House and both sides of the political aisle. We’d see House and Senate hearings to identify who was at fault, what was wrong and how to safeguard our police. Those hearings would culminate in a bill to provide new funding and equipment to protect our law enforcement officers. The bill proudly would be signed in an Oval Office ceremony amid great fanfare.

Yet during COVID-19, we’re seeing a group of public servants dying in the line of duty with comparatively little fanfare. As of last week, 1,336 health care worker deaths from COVID-19 exposure on the job have been reported to an investigative database. Another study using more inclusive criteria puts the total at hundreds more.

Recipe for disaster, lost lives

The victims range from food service workers to nurses to specialist physicians. Health care worker deaths are not tracked as systematically as law enforcement deaths, but a 2002 study found that 80-260 health care workers die annually of work-related infections. If correct, that suggests COVID-19 has caused about a tenfold increase in those deaths — the same increase that would provoke political outrage if it struck police officers. Yet after the initial flurry of “support our heroes” signs early in the pandemic, health care worker deaths have drawn comparatively little attention.

The obvious question, the one the Trump administration should be asking, is why this is occurring. Several factors contribute, but the most important is that the more COVID-19 cases occur, the more COVID-19 patients require health care, especially those most ill. The more patients are receiving health care, the more health care workers are exposed. And the more health care workers are exposed, the more likely that some of them will acquire on-the-job infections.

National COVID-19 Remembrance on Oct. 4, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
National COVID-19 Remembrance on Oct. 4, 2020, in Washington, D.C.

The answer to the question “Why have so many health care workers died in the U.S.?” is simple: “Because our national leaders have so mismanaged the outbreak.” When you have an administration that degrades its own public health scientists, denies the value of masks and social distancing that has been so effective around the world, and misleads the public as to the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s a recipe for disaster that has claimed over 1,300 people who committed themselves to our health.

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America's own Government Accountability Office in September reported that key federal agencies still had not developed specific plans to mitigate shortages of medical supplies, including personal protective equipment needed to protect health care workers.

That shortage continues even now, 11 months into the outbreak.

Steep price for US mismanagement

Other countries have been led by elected officials who faced the emergency, issued consistent science-based guidance and more effectively managed their COVID-19 outbreaks. That’s why from the beginning of the pandemic, the United States has experienced a much higher rate of cases and death than other countries.

We now have more than 9.2 million COVID-19 cases and 70 deaths per 100,000 people, compared with South Korea’s nearly 27,000 cases and 1 death per 100,000. Even our northern neighbor, Canada, has suffered less with 240,000 cases and about 27 deaths per 100,000 people.

The U.S. response looks inept by comparison, and we and our health care workers have paid a steep price.

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It’s why we need a change. We need a president and an administration that will tell the nation the truth about COVID-19 based on the best medical science from qualified physicians and scientists. We need a president and an administration that consistently will unite the country by using those resources to best control this pandemic. We need an administration that recognizes that health care workers should be valued as much as first responders such as law enforcement officers, and resourced accordingly. Only then will we stem the tragic tide of health care workers who sacrificed themselves to save their patients’ lives.

Dr. Scott Deitchman, toxicologist Bryan Hardin, Dr. Mitchell Cohen and epidemiologist Richard Lemen are former assistant Surgeons General and retired rear admirals of the U.S. Public Health Service.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Failed Trump COVID response kills health workers. Where's the outrage?